Deal or no deal time as provinces set out to keep prize assets
Ahead of the most wonderful time of the year comes the most tedious period of the rugby year. Nobody likes contract season.
Players face awkward interviews where they speak about keeping their options open while secretly they fret for their future, and coaches do everything they can to avoid the topic as they worry about their squads for 2016-17.
For administrators and agents, it is the busiest time of the year as they engage in an annual game of cat and mouse, while supporters wait anxiously for snippets of news and the ultimate announcement about whether their favourite player will stay or go.
Perhaps the busiest man in Irish rugby at the minute is David Nucifora, who is charged with keeping the country's most prized assets in the country.
Each province has their marquee man they're desperate to keep, while the union are beginning to build towards 2019. There is much to do.
How the IRFU and Ulster team manager Bryn Cunningham handle the renewals of Rory Best and Jared Payne will be an interesting view into the 2019 intentions given the players' age profiles.
Best is a potential Ireland captain for the upcoming Six Nations and a key leader in the squad but he will be 37 when Japan rolls around.
Valued highly by Joe Schmidt, Payne's absence was felt when injury ended his World Cup, but the 30-year-old is unlikely to be the No.1 outside centre in four years' time.
Both men are potentially in line for one of their last big pay-days and an intelligent footballer like Payne is likely to be in demand.
However, Les Kiss will be determined to hold on to both.
Luke Marshall's three-year deal is also up at the end of the season and given the number of centres available to Kiss and his injury profile, he could struggle to replicate that contract.
As bulk contributors to the national side, it's perhaps no surprise that Nucifora will have plenty of work to do in UCD in the coming weeks with Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy and Jack McGrath among the leading Ireland stars whose deals are up for discussion.
O'Brien was heavily pursued by Toulon last time his contract was nearing an end and, while he has had injuries since opting to stay at the RDS, his World Cup performances are unlikely to have put any of the big French clubs off securing his services.
However, many of the French clubs feel they are being used to try and get the most out of the Irish union, while the experience of Jonny Sexton should serve as a warning for any Ireland front-liner hoping to juggle a career in France with playing for Ireland.
Toulon have been admirers of Healy for some time, but his recent injury record may put off suitors. With a premium on good scrummagers, McGrath may also be of interest but his durability and age profile mean Leinster will be keen to keep him on the books.
Ian Madigan could be the man most likely to leave Leinster given the intense interest from across the Irish Sea.
Mike Ross faces an uncertain season, with Marty Moore also out of contract at the end of the campaign. Another player who is likely to be attracting interest from England is Rhys Ruddock, who has all the attributes to thrive in the Premiership.
Dave Kearney is another whose contract expires this season, but the Ireland winger would be expected to remain with his home province.
Nucifora availed of Munster's free weekend by travelling south last weekend and top of his agenda would have been catching up with Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and, most likely, CJ Stander to begin discussions about their futures.
Like O'Brien, Murray is a key leader for Ireland who was linked with a move to Racing 92 last time his contract came up, but all has been quiet this time around.
Zebo, who shares an agent with Murray, has however been linked with Stade Francais, Toulouse and Pau and has said that he remains open to a move. Stander is another whose eyebrow-raising performances will have caught the eye of the big clubs in France but the prospect of becoming an Ireland international and an improved deal should be enough to keep him in Limerick.
Keith Earls will hope to get his business done quietly and quickly to remain at home, while Munster will hope to persuade home-grown talents James Cronin and Tommy O'Donnell to stay with the province.
The western province had some good news yesterday as Kieran Marmion penned a new two-year deal which keeps him at the Sportsground until 2018, but there is much work to be done.
The most talked-about negotiation in the country has yet to commence, but it won't be long before Nucifora sits down with Robbie Henshaw's representatives to begin discussions over a national contract with the IRFU.
While the details of that deal will be important to both parties with the 22-year-old centre now one of the key players in Schmidt's Ireland squad and the union will hope to be able to tie him down to a long-term deal.
With the focus on Henshaw, there is one more Ireland international who could escape Connacht's clutches with Ulster keen on Rodney Ah You whose contract is nearing an end.