Sunday 23 July 2017

Tony Ward: Sexton move challenges the entire structure of professional game in Ireland

Leinster supporters cheer Jonathan Sexton onto the pitch against Clermont in December -- however, they will be waving goodbye to him at the end of the season
Leinster supporters cheer Jonathan Sexton onto the pitch against Clermont in December -- however, they will be waving goodbye to him at the end of the season
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Sexton leaves Leinster – it was an eye-popping headline that had people in a fluster during the week. Naturally, most assumed the Sexton in question to be the province's top player and most valuable jewel, outside-half Jonathan.

In fact it was former Belvedere College and Leinster squad member Tom who was in the news. The Melbourne-born hooker seized a golden opportunity to ply his trade at the highest level Down Under.

Meanwhile, Leinster and Irish fans breathed a sigh of relief that their prized asset was staying put.

Yesterday that relief was shattered, as Irish rugby's golden boy called everybody's bluff – not least the IRFU's – and announced he was heading for Paris.


Others have made the switch in the past (Trevor Brennan headed to Toulouse with great success), but this move is different. Sexton's decision to go challenges the entire structure upon which the game here has been based in the professional era.

The Irish model has long been cited worldwide as being a shining example of how to nurture top-class talent and keep it at home.

In recent years the amount of players from England, Wales and Scotland that have gone to Top14 rugby has vastly increased, and while phrases like 'cultural change' and 'a new rugby experience' are often used to justify the leap, there's no doubt money is the key factor.

In saying that, nobody should begrudge Sexton his lot. He is 27 and has the chance to maximise his earning potential at the peak of his career.

He will be, at least, over €200,000 better off per year. For a rugby professional it is the stuff of dreams and an offer he simply could not refuse. Yes he was among the highest-paid players here, but in defence of the IRFU, they can only go so far. There comes a stage when they cannot match the huge money floating around France.

The IRFU must have known that this day would come. Rugby is growing in popularity by the year in this country and it's no different in France, with the oval-ball game now challenging soccer as the nation's favourite sport. Sadly for Leinster, the likes of Racing Metro operate on a different financial planet.

Sexton will go from being one of the highest-paid players in Ireland to becoming one of the highest-paid players in France. That is some jump, and I defy anyone to argue that were they in his shoes they'd have done anything different.

He has been as loyal a servant to Leinster as anyone but the move is a no-brainer. Jacky Lorenzetti and Racing made him an offer he could not turn down.

From a Leinster perspective it is a huge blow and there is now a massive void that will need to be filled, although in Ian Madigan they have a replacement with lots of potential.

For Irish rugby, it's inconvenient rather than the end of an era.

The two-year contract is shorter than we might have expected given the magnitude of the move, but given the scale of his salary (and we can only assume it will be structured in such a way as to ensure the maximum net return) he is on to a winner.

There is no shame for the IRFU in not matching these mad numbers, but the obvious worry now exists of Sexton's departure opening the floodgates and our best players becoming prize Top14 targets.

On the same day Sexton announced his departure, Bayonne and Biarritz revealed that they are contemplating amalgamating into a single Basque entity for the purpose of the Heineken Cup. If it happens, how long before other pro clubs merge?

The IRFU have long been prepared for a high-profile player heading overseas. If if wasn't Sexton it would have been someone else.

We simply do not have the funds in this country to compete with the French.

The lure of the money is understandably strong and it is to the great credit of the governing body that it has taken this long.

For Sexton it's a risk but a calculated risk and certainly one well worth taking. Were I in his shoes, given the figures involved, I would be doing precisely the same thing.

The issues of how often Sexton plays and the freedom he has to travel back for Ireland training still have to be addressed.

No doubt his agents will fight for the best conditions they can get for Sexton but, at the end of the day, he who pays the piper calls the tune and when you are splashing out something in the region of €750,000 a year, you're entitled to make certain demands.

I wish Jonny nothing but the best. He is not just a great player and a great pro but one hell of a nice guy. He has worked incredibly hard to get this far in the game and gives his all in every single match.

The transition won't be easy, but he's made of the right stuff and will no doubt be a success over there.

It was a bad day for Leinster and a bad day for the IRFU, but it was also a landmark moment for a truly great player.

I wish him well in his endeavours and can't help thinking, 'God, if I could only turn back that clock!'

Joker Jamie must focus

My views on the captaincy are pretty well established at this stage. I believe it to be the right decision for the previous captain, the incoming captain and for the squad going forward.

It is anything but a slight on our greatest rugby player ever.

For Jamie Heaslip it is a new departure. He needs to be given time to grow into the role. He is a leader, much like his illustrious predecessor, who does that from the front. Where I would urge caution is in relation to that 'laid-back' side to his personality.

Rugby fans are passionate about their game so when the new Ireland captain makes a flippant comment (on the eve of last weekend's Munster game) to the effect "it will probably be the first time I'll watch a game of rugby in a long time" it doesn't do his image or perception of him as a leader any good whatsoever.

Sometimes silence is golden, as I trust the new skipper will learn quickly.

Irish Independent

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