Everything You Need to Know About Irish Rugby’s Central Contracts and the Irish Rugby Players Who Hold Them

Updated 15/4/24 to include Dan Sheehan

Central contracts are arguably the biggest success story of modern day Irish rugby. Central contracts have revolutionized player development and retention in Ireland, often to the envy of many other unions.

The significance of central contracts for Irish rugby players

One of the primary reasons central contracts are significant for Irish rugby players is the stability they provide. This stability also extends to their playing time, as the IRFU determines the number of games a player can participate in at provincial level. This control ensures that players are not overworked or at risk of injury due to excessive game time.

It also allows the provinces to ease their salary burden as they can keep marque players with the IRFU paying their wages.

How central contracts work

Central contracts or as they were known at the time, professional contracts, in Irish rugby were first introduced in 1995 as a means to retain top talent within the country and ensure players’ availability for national and provincial team duties. The IRFU had been opposed to the game turning professional and found themselves a bit behind the times when the IRB voted for the change in August of 1995. Only a handful of the 1995 World Cup squad remained playing rugby in Ireland, the rest moving to the more organised, read lucrative, club game in England.

The then president of the IRFU, Bobby Deacy, described the thinking behind the contracts as:

“Our aim is to make it less attractive for players to play outside the country and more attractive to play at home. We have all seen the difficulties that have arisen in areas this season in relation to the players currently playing in England. We see it as imperative that we get our players back in the best interest of our clubs, provinces and the national team.”

In these early days, there were different tiers of contract, with the top tier internationals earning £30 000 + bonuses and £3k per international match played. From small acorns, mighty salaries are grown, not 30 years later I can’t imagine there is are many IRFU central contracts worth less than 20 times that figure.

Which Irish rugby players are on central contracts?

The below table lists all players in the 2024 Ireland Six Nations squad, the type of contract they have and when it expires (apart from Leinster of course as they rarely disclose the length of their contracts).

Rónan Kelleher2521LeinsterHookerProvinceUnknown
Dan Sheehan2418LeinsterHookerCentral2026/27
Tom Stewart232UlsterHookerProvince2025/26
Finlay Bealham3132ConnachtPropProvince2025/26
Tadhg Furlong3067LeinsterPropCentral2024/25
Jeremy Loughman283MunsterPropProvince2025/26
Tom O’Toole2411UlsterPropProvince2024/25
Cian Healy36126LeinsterPropProvinceUnknown
Andrew Porter2754LeinsterPropCentral2024/25
Ryan Baird2413LeinsterLockProvinceUnknown
Tadhg Beirne3141MunsterLockCentral2024/25
Iain Henderson3274UlsterLockCentral2024/25
Joe McCarthy223LeinsterLockProvinceUnknown
James Ryan2755LeinsterLockCentral2024/25
Jack Conan3139LeinsterBack RowProvinceUnknown
Caelan Doris2531LeinsterBack RowCentral2026/27
Peter O’Mahony3496MunsterBack RowCentral2023/24
Josh van der Flier3052LeinsterBack RowCentral2025/26
Conor Murray34113MunsterScrum HalfCentral2023/24
Craig Casey2412MunsterScrum HalfProvince2026/27
Jamison Gibson-Park3126LeinsterScrum HalfProvinceUnknown
Ciaran Frawley262LeinsterFly HalfProvinceUnknown
Harry Byrne243LeinsterFly HalfProvinceUnknown
Jack Crowley236MunsterFly HalfProvince2024/25
Bundee Aki3347ConnachtCentreCentral2024/25
Robbie Henshaw3064LeinsterCentreCentral2024/25
Stuart McCloskey3113UlsterCentreProvince2024/25
Garry Ringrose2851LeinsterCentreCentral2024/25
Mack Hansen2516ConnachtWingProvince2024/25
James Lowe3121LeinsterWingProvinceUnknown
Jacob Stockdale2737UlsterWingProvince2024/25
Jordan Larmour2631LeinsterWingProvinceUnknown
Calvin Nash263MunsterWingProvince2023/24
Hugo Keenan2731LeinsterFull BackCentral2025/26

When looking at the table the first thing that stands out about the central contracts so called ‘secret sauce’ in Ireland’s success, is that there aren’t many of them. Just 13 Ireland players are under a central contract, with two of them, Conor Murray & Peter O’Mahony expiring at the end of this season. Certainly, O’Mahony’s lack of contract and captaincy has been the topic of much debate, recently put to bed with the announcement that both of them will extend their time with Munster.

This figure aligns with the downward trend in the number of contracts on offer from the IRFU, in 2020 there were 15 players centrally contracted. In 2010 30 players were contracted, although this was reduced to 21 as the IRFU took on the financial commitment to redevelop the stadium. Back in 1995, when the process was seen to be the key to improving Irish rugby the consensus of the IRFU is that the objective of contracting 100 players is attainable.

Furthermore, it’s worth thinking about where we sit in the World Cup cycle. Most of the above contracts are set to expire in 2025, two years before the next Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2027. As it stands, Caelan Doris is the only Irish player to be centrally contracted at the World Cup, though at this stage of the cycle, it is hard to see many of these contracts being renewed and added to.

Future central contracts in Irish rugby

Looking at the table above and taking into account current form and selection, even the staunchest of Ulstermen would struggle to see Iain Henderson, who will be 35 by the next World Cup, retaining his IRFU contract. It’s just as difficult to see the likes of Jack Crowley, Dan Sheehan even ‘Big’ Joe McCarthy not being added to the list. Along with these, who could rule out the likes of Mack Hansen or Craig Casey from joining the list?

So, who else to lose out? Will Bundee Aki continue to show undroppable form as he reaches beyond the mid-thirties? Will Casey’s rising star outshine the 34 year old Gibson-Park’s? If history teaches us anything, it’s that for the past number of years, the IRFU has been pretty good at this stuff. Whether such a tight grip on the finances can be continued as player salaries escalate, remains to be seen.

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