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Dublin: 3°C Friday 14 May 2021

'Hopefully they'll be all sorted out over the next week or two' - Contract talks rumble on for Ireland players

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton is just one of a number of players out of contract at the end of the season.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.

IF EVER THE Ireland squad would welcome some in-camp distractions, you imagine this would be the year. Over the next few weeks you can expect every player who sits down in front of a microphone or Zoom call while wearing an Ireland crest to stress the privilege of playing professional sport amid the ongoing Covid-19 situation. 

It was a point underlined by both Andy Farrell and his captain Johnny Sexton during this morning’s virtual Six Nations launch, the pair fulfilling their duties from the halls of Carton House rather than making the usual trip across the water to an upmarket London location. 

The sentiment is genuine, but while Farrell would like his squad’s attention to be solely on the challenge at hand, for many of his players what lies beyond this season will also be at the forefront of their minds.

The last time the squad gathered all contract talks between the IRFU and its players had been put on hold, leaving the games as the only focus. Now, those talks are taking place right as Farrell is trying to prepare his team for the most important run of matches of the year.

For some, negotiations may go smoothly and pen can meet paper without much stress. Others could find themselves weighing up offers of reduced terms or considering alternative options in between playing Test matches.

It’s not an ideal backdrop to an international camp. As captain, Sexton acknowledges it could be a difficult few weeks for some of his teammates.

“Obviously as captain it’s important that you’re mindful of people’s situations and making sure you are asking about how they are getting on with things, but there are people who are outside of our bubble who are in a lot worse situations than we are at the moment, so we’ve got a touch of reality there,” Sexton explained.

“Obviously with the contract stuff, I think most guys are underway now (with talks) and hopefully they’ll be all sorted out over the next week or two because you want to get it done and dusted before such a big campaign coming up.

“If not, there will be breaks during the Six Nations I suppose and those fallow weeks to pick up the pieces if there are last bits to be done.

“It can be a distraction if you let it be a distraction, but I think guys here know how important the Six Nations is and we’re just looking forward to getting the rugby side of things underway.”

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Sexton falls into that considerable bracket of players who are out of contract at the end of the season. He has previously made no secret of his desire to play at the 2023 World Cup in France, but today he offered a more considered response when asked about his hopes for his future with Ireland.

“I don’t like to throw your goals out for everyone to hear them, but obviously being captain for this campaign, (I have) big aspirations that the team does really well to try and win a championship, which as captain would be brilliant.

“For me, it’s about taking it one campaign at a time. I’m just properly focused on this one and whether I stay on for another year or another two, I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll have something sorted (in terms of a contract) in the next few weeks and like I said, all my focus is on this campaign and trying to win it, trying to do a good job as captain and making sure we’re better as a team off the back of it. 

“I’m so excited to get into camp, it was a great place to be in November and now hopefully we can keep it like that but have a couple of extra results go our way, and to win some silverware is where we want to be at the end of this tournament.”

Ireland finished third in last year’s championship and endured a difficult autumn campaign, but that hasn’t tempered ambitions ahead of the 2021 edition, with Sexton making clear the goal is to finish as champions.

The biggest challenge to making that dream a reality is likely to be defending champions England, who are on a run of four straight wins against Ireland and play Farrell’s squad on the final weekend.

“It’s the one team we probably haven’t thought about at all because it is our last game (of the tournament) and we have a massive game first up against Wales, and then we focus on France,” Sexton said.

“It will be a good barometer when it comes to it on how much we have improved.

“The focus now is that there is something on the line when we play England. That’s where we were last year against France, to play for a championship, and we didn’t turn up on the day. We want to put that right.”

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