Thursday 18 December 2014

French clubs hold all the aces in high-stakes game

Published 23/08/2014 | 02:30

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton (right) chatting with Joe Schmidt (left) during the Ireland women's team victory over New Zealand at the World Cup

IF the IRFU thought they were being out-gunned when their paltry offer to bump up Jonathan Sexton's salary was gazumped by Racing Metro's bumper budget last year, then they ain't seen nothing yet.

Racing Metro, with their tantalising offer of a new four-year contract for the 29-year-old out-half, which would more than likely ensure that Sexton will play the majority of his remaining career in the Top 14, has once more upped the ante in the bidding war.

But that is not all. Toulon, another French giant with seemingly endless pockets as they seek to build upon the dynasty that has already established them as back-to-back European champions, have also entered the fray.

For Maurice Hayes, the IRFU's HR man, and his treasurer side-kick, Tom Grace, staring down one French negotiator is one thing; attempting to stay alive in a multi-million euro high-stakes poker game with two jostling giants of the game is quite another.

If the figures being bandied around are to be believed - and they very rarely are with so many interested parties spinning their different, self-interested yarns - Toulon seem prepared to offer some €900,000 per annum for Sexton's services.

From an economic point of view, it makes little sense for those guarded with curating Irish rugby to become embroiled in such a Dutch auction where any victory would be pyrrhic.

Apart from the headline-grabbing figures, mind-boggling when one remembers that Ireland's best-paid player, Jamie Heaslip, can only boast approximately 60pc of the purported salary being waved in front of his erstwhile Leinster colleague, there are other factors at play. The French clubs have more than just basic purchasing power with which to lure overseas players, as Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal recently averred.

"With five or six players we put in place a system, which is completely legal and not at all secret, that allows some of their salary to be paid in a way that doesn't fall under the cap," he explained last year.

"Along with Jonny Wilkinson, we created a business that commercialised the products of his brand 10.

"That business makes money through caps, T-shirts, polo shirts etc. Should the money brought in and the image rights count under the salary cap? I don't think so. Of course these are only top-ups to his salary, and constitute six-figure sums, not seven."

With a lucrative European TV deal with media giants beIN Sports imminent, it is clearer than ever before that the French hold all the aces when it comes to negotiations with overseas clients.

Ultimately, the IRFU would be press-ganged into not only attempting to match, or at least come as close as is financially feasible, the extraordinary figures but also commit to an unprecedented length of contract.

And, given their well-publicised disdain for offering long-term deals to players over 30 as it stands, would they then be so willing to alter not only their tightened pay structure but now also their philosophy in how they dole out contracts?

Hardly.

Whether it is Metro or Toulon - and one presumes that Sexton would be better minded to remain in Paris given the recent extension to his family and the relative comfort with which he has grown into an initially difficult professional set-up - the IRFU seem helpless to counter.

And, for those who plead ethics, if you were nearing 30, being a new father, and only recently finding yourself rewarded at a justifiable rate, what would your choice be?

One suspects that many of you would have made your decision well before September 15.

Irish Independent

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