from Leinster Rugby...
Leinster Rugby Head Coach Matt O'Connor has this morning confirmed that 27 players have signed new IRFU contracts to continue playing with the province for 2015/16 and beyond, while a further four players have been added to the Leinster squad.
While the arrival of Jonathan Sexton had already been announced, O'Connor confirmed that Connacht's Mick Kearney would be joining the province as would Royce Burke-Flynn and Ian Hirst.
"A huge focus for Guy Easterby, Mick Dawson and I behind the scenes is the retention of key players within the environment" explained O'Connor.
"20 Leinster players were in the extended Irish camp recently during the 6 Nations and I think it reflects very well on the set up that we have here in Leinster that so many international class players have chosen to put pen to paper with us and that they see their immediate future in a blue jersey."
Six foot five lock Mick Kearney has played 15 times for Connacht this season and returns to Leinster having represented the province at age grade level. He was also part of the Irish U20s 2011 IRB World Championship squad and played against England, South Africa and Scotland. He also played for Emerging Ireland in the 2014 IRB Nations Cup.
"We are delighted to secure the services of Mick Kearney. Leo Cullen and Marco Caputo have been very impressed with his progress and he has done well over the last number of seasons with Connacht and we think that he will contribute hugely to the set up here. He is also a young guy having just turned 24 so we very much see him developing as a player and I think he will benefit hugely from working directly with players of the experience of Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy."
Dublin born Kearney also gave his reaction to the news that he would be returning to his home province.
"I am very happy to have signed on with Leinster for the coming season and I look forward to working hard to add to a proven winning environment and culture. Having said that I am very grateful to Connacht and all the staff and coaches over the years but in particular Eric Elwood, Dan McFarland and Pat Lam for the opportunities afforded to me since I made my debut in 2011. I am just focused now on finishing out the season with Connacht as best as I can and helping them to secure the top six position that I feel our efforts deserve."
O'Connor revealed that potential Rugby World Cup selections dictated where cover was required elsewhere.
"We are very proud of the lads and how they perform for Ireland when away but the reality is that we take a considerable hit. In the front row for example we had five of the six Irish front rowers for the majority of the Six Nations with another three, Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss and Tadhg Furlong in the training squad. With that in mind, it was important that we were able to secure cover and Royce Burke Flynn (tighthead) and Ian Hirst (loosehead) will provide that cover.
"They have performed consistently well for Clontarf but we also saw in a few games that they played with the Leinster As this season and when they have been in training with us that they are able to compete at this level. We have seen over the last few years just how productive the club game can be for us. Darragh Fanning has played 18 times for us this year, scoring six tries. Mick McGrath has played six times with two tries to his name. It is an area that we always looking at and Royce and Ian are another good example of that."
Hirst was a nominee for All-Ireland League player of the Year last year with Clontarf and trained with Connacht last summer before being invited to train with Leinster this year. Hirst played in the British & Irish Cup for Leinster this season including the semi-final loss to Worcester Warriors.
Similarly Royce Burke-Flynn was invited to train with Leinster this season as cover with injuries to front line props. He was an unused replacement in the Guinness PRO12 game against Ospreys in the Liberty Stadium in February. However he did play in the British & Irish Cup earlier this season against Carmarthen Quins and Plymouth Albion and was previously a member of the Leinster Academy.
Leinster Rugby CEO, Mick Dawson, welcomed the announcement and looked forward to welcoming the new players to Leinster.
"I think it's great to be able to add new blood to any set up but to be able to add four Leinster lads to the set up and all players that we know will fit in is great. We have already spoken about Johnny's return. We are bringing in one of the best players in world rugby. A winning British & Irish Lion with 51 Irish caps and nearly 500 points to his name. He was a key driver here and it's great to be getting a world class player in.
"Matt and the rest of the coaches identified though that we will be stretched during those first few months of next season and probably beyond as you never know what toll a World Cup campaign can have. Mick, Ian and Royce plus the retention of other players is a huge plus. It is also a testament to the quality of the work going on in the Academy that Josh van Der Flier, Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Dan Leavy and Cathal Marsh will all be stepping up into senior contracts next season."
Matt O'Connor stressed however that while the immediate focus would now switch to matters on the field, there might still be room for one or two other players.
"It is great to get this news out there. It's been a busy few months behind the scenes. I think it shows our supporters how we want to drive Leinster Rugby next season and beyond and the four new lads added to the squad will have an impact of that there is no doubt. Importantly I think it also shows how much we value the blokes in the environment already and what they bring as a collective.
"We are still looking at other options and players that we can bring in and we hope to make an announcement with regard to one addition in the next week or so.
"But we have a massive game on Sunday against the Dragons and another game against Toulon on Sunday week. Despite the injuries and the disruptions of earlier this season, we are the only team in the PRO12 still involved on two fronts and with a chance in both. We will be doing everything we can to ensure that remains the case."
Renewals (* denotes full international):
Josh Van Der Flier