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Jared Payne is the next big gun to commit to Ireland cause

By David Kelly

And then there was one. Jared Payne is expected to join the rest of Ireland's elite nationally contracted players on a two-year IRFU deal to complete the set for performance director David Nucifora, who yesterday nailed down Cian Healy's future as the Leinster prop signed a three-year deal.

When Payne commits to Ulster and Ireland, he will bring the number of centrally contracted players to 15, with Jack McGrath expected to be upgraded to a national deal after one season of his new three-year contract in June 2017.

That would mean Nucifora has contracted seven players on IRFU deals that expire after the 2019 World Cup, with Healy joining McGrath, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Sean O'Brien as the spine of the squad who will, in the union's grand plan at least, spearhead Ireland's bid for glory in Japan.

When Payne signs on the dotted line, it will bring silly season to a close.

Munster and Leinster are still looking to add an overseas signing or two for next season, a few veterans still have to sort their futures, while fringe players are still looking for deals, but by and large the big deals are done.

After some loose talk of an exodus, only Ian Madigan and Marty Moore will leave these shores from Joe Schmidt's extended squad. Others came close to joining them, but ultimately they were persuaded to stay.

Given the buying power of the French and English clubs, it is no mean feat for the IRFU and the provinces to convince their best players to stay at home.

Healy is an interesting case. Had his contract expired 18 months ago, Toulon would have done everything in their power to sign him, but his subsequent injury struggles left him with big-spending Worcester Warriors as his chief bargaining chip.

For the IRFU to hand the injury-plagued loosehead a three-year deal is a major leap of faith.

In recent years, the union have moved more and more to heavily incentivised deals and one imagines the 28-year-old's contract is heavily weighted towards pay for play.

When fit and firing, Healy is one of Schmidt's true world XV contenders. A barnstorming ball-carrier with rare explosive power, he is also a destructive tackler who adds so much to Ireland's game.

The player's record speaks for itself and 28 is not old for a prop.

Healy has won three Heineken Cups, two Six Nations, a Pro12 and a Challenge Cup, playing 56 times for his country and touring Australia with the Lions when injury denied him a Test cap.

Centrally contracted players from 2016/17: Rob Kearney (2018), Andrew Trimble (2017), Tommy Bowe (2018), Keith Earls (2019), Robbie Henshaw (2019), Johnny Sexton (2019), Conor Murray (2019), Cian Healy (2019), Rory Best (2018), Devin Toner (2017), Donnacha Ryan (2017), Peter O'Mahony (2018), Sean O'Brien (2019), Jamie Heaslip (2017). Jared Payne (2018) TBC.

l Meanwhile with the Six Nations back, Chris Henry could have been forgiven for trying to push forward his return from injury but looking back now, he concedes it may not have been the wisest move.

The Ireland flanker injured his shoulder in Ulster's win over Toulouse in December and missed two games before prematurely returning against Munster in January. Henry (below) was subsequently forced to sit out another number of weeks but he returned again against Glasgow last week.

"This injury has been a real niggly one," he explained.

"I came back when we played Edinburgh at home then Oyonnax, but in hindsight I think I came back too soon. Now I'm over the worst of it and starting to feel that I've a normal shoulder again.

"It was due to my own desire to get back in the hunt for an international place that I was a bit premature. It just shows you that you need to be fit."

An injury to Sean O'Brien may open the door for Henry to return to the Ireland squad ahead of the England game next week but he knows that he faces stiff competition.

Henry is expected to start for Ulster at home to Scarlets on Sunday and he is eager to get some game-time under his belt.

"Rhys (Ruddock) is doing really well as is Tommy (O'Donnell), but if anything happens in regards to Ireland it would be amazing," he said.

"But really now it's about getting back into a rhythm and contribute in an Ulster shirt.

"If that's enough time for Joe (Schmidt) to think I can do something that would be brilliant," added the flanker.

Belfast Telegraph


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