Money talks as IRFU braced for high-stakes game with Sexton
Jonathan Sexton was nowhere to be seen as Leinster pitched up in UCD before the TV cameras and photographers for their advertised training session yesterday.
Whether his absence may be a permanent one beyond next summer remains a matter of deep conjecture for the province, frazzled concern for his IRFU paymasters and increasing fear for his loyal band of supporters.
Irish rugby has been down this well-worn path before, of course, but the latest speculation linking one of Ireland's gold-plated stars to the cash-rich Top 14 seems to have a little more substance this time around.
The figures are mind-boggling.
Racing Metro, purportedly the main suitors, who reportedly met Sexton for "convivial" talks last weekend, are supposedly engineering a three-year contract worth €750,000-a-year - a €2.25m bonanza.
That offer would not only blow their French rivals – of whom there are reportedly three, led by Montpellier – out of the water, but utterly rout any possible intentions the IRFU would have of holding on to the player.
The IRFU have long held to the credo that they will not compete with overseas clubs when it comes to pay scales and, under treasurer Tom Grace and in the present financial climate, that attitude has considerably hardened in recent years.
Sexton and his representative have played this game before; this time two years ago, Sexton was only on a contract worth €100,000 and there were stories linking him to Stade Francais in a €1.1m two-year deal before his salary was bumped up to its present €350,000.
It is believed that the IRFU may be willing to push this out to the region of €400,000, but they will absolutely refuse to become engaged in a Dutch auction with a clutch of privately bankrolled French giants.
Even the great Brian O'Driscoll was forced to take a minor pay cut to his basic salary of €350,000 when he negotiated his most recent deal – albeit that barely impinged on his earning power, as he can still command a total annual income of over €1m from commercial interests.
However, his recent less than subtle hints about his future – the Irish captain hinted at a future move to Australia – indicate that even the IRFU's most potent asset, if one nearing the end of his stellar career, is aware of the situation in the IRFU headquarters.
On the occasion of O'Driscoll's two most recent contract negotiations with the IRFU, the canny captain very publicly flirted with the prospect of moving to France. Indeed, in 2005, he visited Biarritz officials before eventually committing to Ireland.
"I did go down to Biarritz to be spotted and encourage the IRFU to come in with a counter-offer," admitted O'Driscoll in a recent interview. "It was not my finest hour, but thankfully the IRFU came up with an offer."
Others, whether Jamie Heaslip, Donncha O'Callaghan, Fergus McFadden or Stephen Ferris, have at one time or another been dangled as a carrot beneath the noses of French clubs in recent times.
The lure of Top 14 lucre has always been a threat to the foundations of how the IRFU conduct their business in terms of their prize assets, but the financial gap has continued to widen.
When Clermont's star-studded side – on a €30m budget – defeated Leinster (€6m) twice in the Heineken Cup before Christmas, Blues coach Joe Schmidt bemoaned the spending power that has left his weakened side on the verge of elimination from the competition.
"I don't think we have the same depth as some of the big-spending French clubs," said Schmidt, who knows what he is speaking about, as he spent several years as assistant coach with the Heineken Cup favourites.
The IRFU have long appreciated this fact and, even if they have frustrated the Irish Players Union and certain agents with their conservatism, the tactic has predominantly favoured them, with the majority of Ireland's "golden generation" spurning supposedly lucrative offers to travel abroad.
Ireland's prevalence as a competitive rugby nation, winning regular Triple Crowns, Heineken Cups and ultimately a Grand Slam this century, has helped the IRFU to keep its stars in this country, allied to a benevolent player management system that limits the amount of games they play each season.
Also, the tax break system designed for indigenous professional sportspeople by former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy's Fianna Fail party allows for generous post-retirement rebates, which in rugby reflects the short-term window for players to maximise their income.
Hence, a player like O'Driscoll, admittedly Ireland's highest-paid rugby player, is in line to receive more than €600,000 from the tax man when he eventually retires – provided he finishes his playing career in this country.
Of course, the IRFU and Sexton know that a player can still take advantage of this system even if he did decide to take a gamble on a three-year stint in the Top 14 – once he finishes his career in Ireland, he can recoup the tax on the 10 highest annual incomes of annual salaries earned here.
By the end of a three-year deal in France, he would still only be 31 and presumably able to command a high salary back in Ireland as a Leinster player.
What this all means is that there will inevitably be much bluffing and card-playing in the weeks to come, with player, agent, family and IRFU money men facing each other down in a high-stakes poker game.
Sexton also knows that his pre-eminence as Ireland's indisputable first-choice out-half also places him in a strong position.
Declan Kidney, who may not be coach beyond this summer in any event, would be foolish to ignore a player just because he plies his trade overseas.
It all adds up to uncertainty that few involved would appreciate at this stage of the season, with Leinster's Heineken Cup qualification chances on the brink and with Kidney due to announce his Six Nations squad on Thursday.
Rugby contract negotiations are normally a mid-season phenomenon, but most of them, unlike soccer, happen far away from the gaze of the media.
However, when a world-class talent is involved, and cash-rich French clubs are prepared to offer relatively mouth-watering contract terms, the rules of engagement are changed utterly.
If Sexton, acknowledged as one of Ireland's leading world-class players, is the first to finally take the plunge and swap Ireland for France, this could be a watershed moment for the sport.
If he does not, it will be recorded as yet another elaborate bluff, but also a reminder to Irish supporters just how lucky they have been to enjoy having all their leading players employed on IRFU terms which have contributed to a decade of provincial and international success.