independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Leinster owe out-half chance to test the waters elsewhere

It is one of the most well-worn of phrases in the lexicon of the sporting fanatic. "He doesn't owe us anything."

Leinster supporters – and by extension many Irish rugby supporters – will be clinging nervously to the potential truth of such a statement should negotiations between their star player Jonathan Sexton and mega-bucks French side Racing Metro maintain their purported current tempo and warmth.

A blithe, if admittedly cursory examination, of the fond cliche would seem to reveal that the multi-medalled, world-class out-half could very well claim to owe to Leinster that fidelity demanded by those beyond his circle of friends and family.

True, Leinster have provided him with the stunning platform and the world-class facilities and coaching structures required to develop the 27-year-old Dubliner into the superlative performer that he is today.

However, that loyalty, particularly in a professional era and within a profession that obviously offers a foreshortened career at a certain level of earning capacity, must never assume to flow in merely one direction.

And so, as much as outside observers may be emotively prompted to almost demand that Sexton's allegiance be necessarily a lifelong commitment, the exigencies of the real world and, more pertinently, the individual's own beliefs and feelings, cannot simply be ignored.

The immediate response to the latest, inevitable swirl of expectation surrounding one of the IRFU's contracted world-class players is to carelessly despatch it to the file marked "paper talk".

Player agents and avaricious French clubs – whose budgets regularly approach €30m and are hence an obvious clearing house for transfer speculation – are regular conduits for the almost annual hive of activity when it comes to the contract renewals of Irish international players.

A quick archived search on any news aggregator will reveal that almost every top-class Irish international – led by familiar names like Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip – has been "linked" with a move to supposedly greener fields elsewhere.

That few have taken the plunge should not arm Sexton's supporters against complacency.

For there are as many reasons to justify Sexton's claims to grab this opportunity by the scruff of the neck than there are to virulently oppose it.

Sexton may have won three Heineken Cup titles with Leinster but he knows that he had to fight tooth and nail to be ultimately accepted as a part of the initial squad that brought European glory to the province in May 2009.

Earlier that season, he had been exiled from the provincial squad as poor form consigned him to the edges of the first-team squad, with then-coach Michael Cheika seeming to prefer the re-signing of veteran David Holwell, rather than indulge the St Mary's man.

Sexton thought of quitting the province then; mercifully, he persisted and battled to regain the trust of his management and team-mates and, when Felipe Contepomi was injured early on in the memorable semi-final against Munster, his career lurched significantly forwards.

As he propelled a booming penalty between the posts in his first action that day, a top-class career was launched too; a stellar display in the Heineken Cup final against Leicester sealed his berth in a side that would subsequently dominate the European game.

Sexton's personal drive and commitment has more than matched that of his team-mates and coaches. But Leinster owe Sexton and his consistently high level of performance as much as the player owes them.

His head and heart will jostle agonisingly over this decision. He should not be damned if his head wins the argument.

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