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IRFU bag big kit deal after keeping stars

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The IRFU have followed up the securing of all of their front-line players on new contracts with a bumper kit deal said to be worth €20m over six years.

The deal with Canterbury is the biggest of its kind in Irish sport and comes as a major boost to the coffers at Lansdowne Road after the union had to shell out to keep the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien from moving to France at the end of the season.

The New Zealand manufacturers will replace outgoing partners Puma who paid €11.5m last year to break from their €40m contract signed in 2009.

While the replacement deal is not on par with that record agreement, the €3.3m it will contribute to the accounts will come as a welcome fillip to the union who have not gone unscathed by the impact of the economic downturn.

The union are running a deficit budget this year after poor renewals of their five and 10-year ticket sales and are operating under increasing uncertainty over the future of the competitions the provinces will take part in next season .

The optimism that followed the narrow defeat to New Zealand in November has seen the union sell out their three home games for the upcoming Six Nations competition, with 155,000 tickets sold for the Lansdowne Road games against Scotland, Wales and Italy and 20,000 away fans expected to visit Dublin over the next fortnight.

The new deal with Canterbury will run until 2020 and encompasses both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

IRFU commercial director Padraig Power yesterday hailed it as "the best deal possible" after a process that saw 19 different companies bid for the contract.

The Irish players won't be sporting their new kit until the November internationals – they will continue to don Puma gear during the Six Nations.

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England head coach Stuart Lancaster insists Chris Ashton remains a wing option against France as he puts the finishing touches to selection for Saturday's RBS 6 Nations opener.

Ashton's 37 caps identify him as a serious contender for the Paris showdown – even though his form stagnated throughout the autumn – with injuries to Marland Yarde and Christian Wade making him all but a certain inclusion.

Lancaster has indicated that he will be happy to pitch any two of rookie trio Jack Nowell, Jonny May or Anthony Watson into battle at the Stade de France if he deems them ready for such a critical match.

But Lancaster has noted Ashton's resurgence at Saracens in the wake of an underwhelming series of QBE Internationals and still views him as his most accomplished support runner.

"After the autumn he went back to Saracens, worked on his game and has played well since," said Lancaster, who names his team on Thursday morning.

"There are still areas of his game that he's working on, but his form since the autumn has been good.

"He's been playing in a Saracens side that's been winning. In terms of his reaction, it's been the reaction you'd want.

"The message to Chris has been to retain your point of difference – your tracking and try-scoring –but work on the timing of high ball receipts etc. And he's reacted well. In terms of tracking the ball and getting on the end of things, he's still the best."

Jostling to accompany or replace Ashton on the wing are uncapped duo Nowell and Watson, while May has made one solitary Test appearance - against Argentina last summer.

"Chris' point of difference is still his ability to track the ball, but other wings have things that make them stand out," said Lancaster.

Belfast Telegraph

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