Thursday 27 July 2017

Someone has got their figures wrong. But who?

With Jonny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip yet to sign new IRFU contracts, Vincent Hogan wonders who will blink first as the 'foreign' options come sharply into focus

Jonny Sexton has yet to sign a new contract with the IRFU while his Leinster team-mate Jamie Heaslip has also been linked with a move abroad.
Jonny Sexton has yet to sign a new contract with the IRFU while his Leinster team-mate Jamie Heaslip has also been linked with a move abroad.
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Jonny Sexton will have been hungry yesterday for the finer detail of James Hook's impending move to France.

The Wales utility player announced that he will play his rugby with Perpignan for the next three seasons.

Sky Sports reported that Hook's salary would be worth "nearly £500,000 per season"; an extraordinary sum, yet not an entirely unbelievable one, given the spending history of some of the plutocrat owners in the Top 14 (French Championship).

Hook was born exactly two weeks before Sexton in 1985 and would probably be seen as having a roughly similar market value. Both are current internationals, albeit Hook's versatility has enabled him to play for Wales at full-back and centre as well as his preferred fly-half position.

Yet, he is known to have been frustrated lately at losing out for the No 10 shirt with both Wales (to Stephen Jones) and Ospreys (to Dan Biggar) and actually declared his intention to seek new employers as far back as November.

Sexton's circumstances are different. He has established himself as his country's first-choice '10' and, though not as experienced as Hook (11 caps to the Welshman's 47), is now seen as a pivotal figure for both Leinster and Ireland.

Yet, his contract negotiations with the IRFU have reached a cul-de-sac at a time when his advisors insist that he is attracting interest from some of France's biggest clubs.

Hook's move to Perpignan will now add ballast to their argument that Sexton won't be short of lucrative alternatives if the Union doesn't improve its current offer.

They believe that, having started three of Ireland's four November Internationals, Sexton's stock has risen significantly since negotiations began in October.

The union's stance is coloured, essentially, by scepticism. They doubt the notion that heavyweight French clubs are courting Sexton with anything like the urgency implied and believe that the player's agent, Fintan Drury, has been unrealistic in his figures.

Drury has a reputation as a hard bargainer and, given that another of his clients -- Jamie Heaslip -- has also yet to agree a new IRFU contract, the impression of tactical intransigence is easy to create. Yet, the Heaslip negotiations are -- I understand -- far more advanced and a good deal closer to resolution.

export

A Drury insider also points to the fact that, in 12 years of negotiating professional rugby contracts with the union, not one of their clients has ultimately gone overseas. They say their history shows that they are not in the export business, albeit Sexton could be a first.

What nobody doubts is the player's desire to stay in Ireland at a time when Leinster look to be evolving into one of Europe's most exciting teams.

Yet, the kind of figure floated yesterday as Hook's expected salary in France is a small ocean away from what the IRFU is willing to pay Sexton. Despite his form, they do not see him yet as being in the same professional bracket as the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell or even -- latterly -- Heaslip and their offer reflects that.

Many of the Grand Slam and multiple Triple Crown-winning Irish team have had to swallow painful salary cuts as the union comes to terms with new financial realities, especially in light of the ruinous ticketing fiasco in November.

The games against South Africa, Samoa and Argentina will be remembered more for the great swathes of empty seats in the new Aviva than for any of the rugby that unspooled. And their recent commitment to a three-year investment in Connacht, not to mention the union's part bank-rolling of Ulster's Springbok revolution, has stiffened their approach to contract negotiation.

Then there is the possibility of Munster now winning the Amlin Cup, a result that would see Connacht joining the other three Irish

provinces as a Heineken Cup franchise next season with the attendant financial needs. Little wonder the purse strings are tightening.

Union treasurer Tom Grace is considered a formidable negotiator, one insider jokingly likening the former Irish wing to a war-time general. "If his predecessor, John Lyons, was like Neville Chamberlain, Grace is Winston Churchill," he says. "He's a real straight-shooter."

So, who will blink first at the poker table?

The cynical view is that the union's favourite Irish player just now is Tommy Bowe, given the Monaghan man's salary is paid by Welsh club the Ospreys. His move to Wales seemed to transform Bowe as a player and, though there was interest from at least two Irish provinces in bringing him home, his decision to stay at the Liberty Stadium has surprised nobody.

Bowe is extremely well treated by Ospreys and spared the kind of gruelling itinerary that can be the lot of a player in France, where the Top 14 alone involves 26 games for each club.

Yet, it is clearly in the IRFU's interests to keep its best players centrally contracted at home. That way, they can at least retain some semblance of control over their game-time and general welfare.

After being pulled kicking and screaming into the professional age, the Irish structure is the envy of many today. Hard to believe that the day before Ireland flew out to the '95 World Cup, the IRFU issued a statement essentially decrying any movement towards professionalism and describing the game as "a leisure activity."

Their initial horror at what followed later that year at the historic IRB meeting in Paris led to a kind of paralysis. The best players left in droves, giddy at the full-time salaries on offer in England compared to the tokenism indulged in by the union.

Yet, many English clubs were forking out money they didn't have and, gradually, the IRFU came to understand that the logistics of the new arrangement were problematic.

Not alone was travel an issue, but, suddenly, the clubs employing Irish players were asking awkward questions. Like would there be compensation for injuries sustained on international duty? Like what was the story with insurance?

By the end of the decade, the IRFU had come to understand the importance of control and began bringing its best players home. And, with the European Cup becoming such a cash cow, the provinces found they could sell their message to even the most ambitious.

In many ways, an artificial world was born. For the Heineken Cup has a support base today that would have been incomprehensible to the handful of rugby die-hards who stood on the line to cheer on a team representing Munster or Leinster little more than a decade back.

Today, they are franchises known and respected across the rugby world. And, for the modern player, it will seem as if there has never been anything different.

Sexton was 14 when Munster played in their first Heineken Cup final and got his big professional break nine years later against many of those same players who lost that final (2000) to Northampton at Twickenham. Felipe Contepomi's injury at Croke Park in the '09 semi-final changed both his career and his life.

To be fair to Sexton, he has grasped the opportunity with both hands and now looks a top-class international fly-half.

The union will argue that they are recognising that fact by offering to more than triple his old salary. Drury will counter by suggesting that the new figure still doesn't reflect his client's market value.

Maybe the nub of the issue is whether the image of foreign opportunity is overstated or not.

Some believe that the perception of monied rugby in France is somewhat exaggerated by the extravagant spending of just a handful of clubs like Toulon, Racing Metro, Perpignan and Clermont when so many others are struggling desperately to survive.

There is also an argument that European clubs inclined to invest heavily this year are more likely to wait for the customary post-World Cup influx of top southern hemisphere players than to commit now.

If Sexton does not sign a new contract, yet retains his current form through the Heineken Cup, Six Nations and into the World Cup next September, his bargaining position will be remarkably strong. Yet, to wait would be a gamble too.

The union seems determined to test his (and Drury's) nerve. Someone has got their figures wrong.

But who?

tomorrow: david kelly examines the rising role of agents in rugby

Irish Independent

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