Joe Schmidt factor key to Sexton move to Leinster
Close relationship paves way for Leinster and IRFU to get their man in time for World Cup
COMPETITIVE action may be another two weeks away, but before a ball has been kicked in the new season Irish rugby is already in the feel-good zone.
Speculation over Johnny Sexton’s future was expected to hover over the early stages of the season with the player himself already declaring that he wanted it resolved as early as possible.
But no one expected white smoke to rise this fast. The IRFU and Leinster have responded to Sexton’s call, acting quickly to secure his services and the result is positive for all concerned.
It means that, as it stands, Schmidt will have all of his major players under union control in the lead-up to the centrepiece of his time in charge of the national team – next year’s World Cup.
Crucially, it allows him to have full access to a man who is central to the way he wants his team to play without distraction.
As well as the boost for Ireland, Leinster get their favourite son back after a two-year sojourn in Paris, while Sexton himself returns home with his head held high with the chase for his signature only served to re-emphasise the Lions fly-half’s standing in the game.
There will have been more lucrative deals on the table, but it is a testament to his strong relationship with Schmidt and his desire to achieve things with the province he calls home that he is set to spurn the advances of the moneyed French clubs to return to Ireland.
It can’t have been an easy decision, there must be a sense of unfinished business at Racing Metro where they have invested heavily and hoped to build their club around the Dubliner.
However, the arrival of Sexton’s first son this summer will surely have had an impact on the decision, while the lure of home and the promise of finishing his career at the RDS would also have been strong.
The Schmidt factor should not, however, be underestimated. Pictures from Marcoussis of the duo’s easy interaction during the Ireland women’s team’s victory over New Zealand were a window into a close relationship, crucial to the national team’s chances of success.
It escaped most people’s attention, but sitting alongside Schmidt, Sexton, his wife Laura and their baby son was new IRFU performance director David Nucifora.
The Australian met with Sexton during the summer tour to Argentina and, while his direct impact on the move home is unclear at this stage, it isn’t a bad piece of business for a man with a huge job on his hands.
Sexton’s return is coup for the union and chief executive Philip Browne who, along with Leinster’s Mick Dawson, conducted negotiations with the player.
With Rob Kearney and Peter O’Mahony among those whose contracts expire at the end of the current campaign, the impact of bringing the wild goose home will be a positive.
After keeping Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan et al in the system last season in the face of huge interest from France, the prospect of retaining the other leading lights in Ireland has become more likely.
The union don’t hand out four-year contracts too often and it will be interesting to see what response others get if they seek such security.
But, while Sexton was not made to feel particularly special during the winter of 2012/13 when he felt the terms offered by the union were insufficient, he has gotten what he wants now. The World Cup will be a factor in those other negotiations, just as it will hang over just about everything throughout this season.
While the Six Nations win was a huge result and a major lift, advancing beyond the quarter-finals for the first time would represent real progress after the hope and ultimate disappointment in New Zealand.
With the finals taking place so close and in such familiar conditions, this represents an opportunity for this Ireland team under the coach that Sexton believes is the best in the world.
Ireland may have coped with their fly-half being in Paris this season, but having him in situ ahead of the assault on the Webb Ellis Cup will be crucial.
With the fly-half being so instrumental in the way Schmidt’s side play, his presence in national training camps without any demands from Paris in the build-up will be key, while beyond the tournament the ability to manage his game-time will be a boon for the management as he enters his 30s.
Sexton didn’t always relish being rested during his previous stint, it went against his competitive nature.
However, last season he got little rest after a gruelling Lions campaign and answered the needs of his employers by playing week in, week out during the opening weeks of the campaign.
It meant Schmidt was forced to give him a weekend off instead of playing him against Samoa and he struggled to be at his best against Australia and New Zealand.
The recovery of Racing’s back-up out-halves meant things had improved by the time the Six Nations rolled around, but again Sexton had to head for Paris during down weeks and the coach was forced to prepare for key games with Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan running the plays.
Despite that, and the misunderstanding over the extent of his thumb injury, Ireland still won the Six Nations but the strain was evident.
Schmidt might have been tempted to give Sexton the summer off, but the opportunity to work with the fly-half for two weeks straight in Argentina was too good to resist and he ended up starting both Tests in the series win.
With Brian O’Driscoll now retired, Sexton has emerged as Ireland’s most valuable player; the man who makes the backline tick and keeps the standards high throughout the side.
At Leinster, his departure left a void that Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan have struggled to fill in the biggest games and, while neither will be jumping for joy at news of his return, for Matt O’Connor it is a hugely significant signing as he looks to put his stamp on proceedings at the RDS.
It isn’t often an Irish province will trump France’s big-money clubs for a world-class new signing, even if Sexton knows his way to Leinster’s UCD training base already.
Of course, the prospect of Sexton running the Blues’ backline will have to wait 12 months. For now, he remains in Paris and there’s a whole season ahead.
But today’s news that, from next summer, he will be back home for what looks like the remainder of his career.
Not a bad way to start a season.