Monday 23 October 2017

Ward: Sexton should stay in France, to better himself and Ireland

Jonathan Sexton of Racing Metro in action
Jonathan Sexton of Racing Metro in action
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So Jonathan Sexton ran over and shouted in the ear of big Springbok lock Juandre Kruger – apparently they even pushed each other!

The training ground bust-up at Racing Metro – so incredibly unusual for a physical sport like rugby! – goes viral. Every media outlet from here to Timbuktu is investigating and attaching a relevance way beyond the normality of what transpires on rugby training grounds everywhere, every day.

Of course, the real story is not the run-of-the-mill spat, but about how the Irish out-half is getting on as the mould-breaker, given his high profile and his high-salary transfer from an Irish game hitherto largely shielded from outside forces attracting its better players.

There are an awful lot who would wallow in his discomfort were the former Leinster player to fail in his crusade and return home. I am not one of those.

Ireland have been blessed with a perfect working environment for our elite to prosper at home. For that the IRFU deserves immense credit. Initially when the game went open, the geese flew, mostly to the English Premiership, London Irish being the most popular port of call back then.

PROSPERED

It wasn't by any means the ideal scenario. I remember regularly heading out to the ALSA complex next to Dublin Airport to cover the Wednesday sessions when the exiles would fly in that morning and back across the Irish Sea in the evening.

But once the governing body got its house in order, by way of centrally contracting the top stars, the Irish game domestically and internationally has prospered no end.

All had been kosher – apart from the occasional high-profile exception such as Geordan Murphy or Tommy Bowe – until Fintan Drury entered the scene, accused unfairly and in an over-the-top fashion of almost single-handedly betraying his country and his fellow countrymen.

Here was high treason, rugby style. How dare a highly qualified, highly respected, highly experienced football and rugby agent get the best deal for his man?

Was I surprised at this development? Yes, but only because of the manner in which Irish players had previously used English and French interest as a bartering tool in negotiations with Lansdowne Road.

Yet I could immediately identify with Sexton in his plight. Rugby is a career choice fraught with danger, and a short one at that. Rightly or wrongly, he felt he wasn't getting what he was worth from the IRFU, so Drury and Platinum upped the ante dramatically. Sexton called the Union's bluff and declared Paris as his new port of call.

It was a bold and risky move, but I would like to think that, given the same set of circumstances, I would have done exactly the same.

What the Ireland out-half and his soon-to-expand family are experiencing is a different way of life, a different language, a different culture and a different rugby mindset. Is it impacting on his game in any negative way? Not a jot.

Be in no doubt, there are many who want him to fail – and not just in the corridors of power at Lansdowne Road. So, when he gives it to Kruger, as he did to his kicking coach in Croker many moons ago (and to countless Leinster team-mates many times over as well), the knives are out.

The convenient perception is of a player frustrated at the lack of instant success with Racing when compared to say Toulon or Clermont.

And, contrary to popular opinion, I do not buy into the 'fatigue factor' one little bit. It is admirable how well the governing body try to look after their highly valued resources in relation to game time here, but talk to players in private, and they want to be on the playing field.

How could any player in his prime not want to spend every spare minute he can doing what he does best?

I doubt if there is an Irish player anywhere right now not yearning to be on Joe Schmidt's boarding list for the June flight to Buenos Aires. It is why they play the game. If there is any player feeling 'I hope they rest me next week or next month' then he is an impostor, in the wrong career.

Sexton is no different, insofar as he wants to play as regularly as possible. Has it impacted negatively on his form for Ireland? Not at all. On the contrary he is developing into a much more complete player.

The goal-kicking out-half is under the spotlight in every game, so when Sexton misses critical kicks, as he did against New Zealand and France, it is put down to 'fatigue', to too much rugby – the fact that the Racing coaches want to pick their highly-paid playmaker-in-chief in every Top 14 game they.

All this being said, I do hope Sexton will return at some stage to the Irish game, and this will most probably be to Leinster.

For now, though, out of sight is most certainly not out of mind. He was a key performer throughout the Six Nations and, along with the ever-improving Conor Murray, Schmidt is blessed with a half-back combination up there with the very best.

Opinions vary as to our most influential player in the Championship winning campaign. Peter O'Mahony and Andrew Trimble come immediately to mind and perhaps Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip, but with four tries, eight conversions and 10 penalties, Sexton's input was massive.

Far from missing home comforts, Jonathan Sexton is thriving on foreign fields.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport