Thursday 14 December 2017

An offer that was just too good to refuse

Sexton's move to France will have wide-reaching effects for all involved

Jonathan Sexton
Jonathan Sexton
David Kelly

David Kelly

That's the question Irish rugby supporters were asking as they digested the sensational news that the IRFU had ceded their first front-line player to an overseas club in more than a decade of central contracting.

Jonathan Sexton's decision to leave Leinster was always likely once the IRFU made it known that they would not accede to the hardly extortionate demand that he be offered a deal commensurate with that of Ireland's highest paid player, current international captain Jamie Heaslip, who earns a €450,000 salary.

That this suggestion was made to the IRFU as far back as last May will only heighten the sense of anger amongst certain sections of Irish rugby support, and particularly those involved in the Leinster set-up.

That the IRFU only yesterday decided to return with an offer that still lagged behind that of Heaslip's was the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of the often fraught negotiations.

After only two years on a full contract worth in the region of €300,000, which he signed after rejecting a €600,000 deal with Stade Francais in 2010, Sexton was willing to stay in Ireland were he offered a deal that would reflect his status.

The IRFU's refusal to engage with this request ultimately forced the player's hand and discussions were subsequently opened with several French clubs, with Racing Metro emerging as favourites to secure the signature of the three-time Heineken Cup winner.

The IRFU reeled once these discussions became public knowledge and steadfastly refused to become engaged in a Dutch auction and only returned to the negotiating table yesterday, when it was made known that Racing Metro had set a deadline for the deal to be completed.

Paris-based Racing Metro, who are believed to be paying Sexton €750,000 – French club regulations disallow clubs from announcing player signings at this stage of the season – had cooled in their public utterances in recent days.

Both owner Jacky Lorenzetti and coach Gonzalo Quesada dismissed the transfer story, but only because French clubs have had a history of having their bluff called by several Irish players in recent years.

This time, it was an Irish player who called the IRFU's bluff and few could cavil at Sexton's attempts to accrue as much from a fore-shortened career choice as possible, particularly as it will not affect his international career.

Leinster, who are forced to stand idly by as the IRFU negotiate all contracts centrally, are the real losers in all this as they have seen one of their most important players whisked away from beneath their noses.

Sexton's move may be a one-off – there are few other players in Ireland who could command such a salary apart, perhaps, from Cian Healy and Rob Kearney. Unfortunately for Leinster and the IRFU, both of those players will be out of contract at the end of this season, as are other key performers such as Conor Murray and Keith Earls from Munster.

Keeping hold of their remaining marquee names will now become the IRFU's primary target to prevent Sexton's departure marking the beginning of an unprecedented and unwanted trend.

What this means for Jonny Sexton

At 27, Sexton can enjoy a couple of years earning a salary he would not hope to achieve while on the IRFU's books and, given the shortened career of a professional rugby player, few would begrudge him the chance to maximise his earning potential.

After struggling to establish himself at Leinster, at one stage even contemplating leaving when dropped during Leinster's initial Heineken Cup-winning season, Sexton owes his home province nothing.

Having achieved everything possible with Leinster, he could still return to the club after a couple of seasons while still at the height of his playing powers.

The oft-repeated claims that players may be flogged in the Top 14 do not necessarily stand up to severe scrutiny, as the inordinately large squads of the bigger clubs allow for as much player management as is already afforded by the IRFU.

This is an opportunity Sexton could simply not afford to turn down for either financial or, indeed, sporting reasons.

What this means for the IRFU

After being dragged kicking and screaming into the professional era, the blueprint of the great Tom Kiernan, who devised the introduction of the central contracting system, reversed the player drain of the late 1990s.

Keith Wood was the last high-profile player to be lost to an Irish structure which has been held up as a template which other countries can only admire during a golden era for Irish international and provincial rugby. Now Sexton's move could expose the first cracks.

A surfeit of injuries to key players such as Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll has demonstrated that not even the strict player management system operated by the IRFU can guarantee the full availability of all its best players.

However, shifting €1m from their wage bill, and still being in a position to pick Sexton for internationals, will be seen by treasurer Tom Grace and his IRFU colleagues as a win-win scenario.

What it means for Leinster

Leinster supporters and their coach Joe Schmidt will not be enamoured at how the IRFU have managed to let one of their prime assets walk out the door.

Leinster, under the terms of their relationship with the IRFU who centrally pay their international players and head coach, were helpless in the negotiations that dragged on for more than six months.

At this late stage, they will find it difficult to recruit a high-profile replacement and, in any event, they would have to do so with funding from their own coffers.

What it means for Ian Madigan

Sexton's Leinster colleague Cian Healy starkly highlighted the scenario that now awaits his side in the wake of Sexton's departure.

He posted a picture of Ian Madigan, Sexton's current out-half deputy, accompanied by the phrase, "Chill out, I got this".

However, Madigan has been largely unimpressive as Sexton's deputy and remains untested in the sort of high pressure occasions that Sexton has repeatedly proved himself in, notably that extraordinary 2011 Heineken Cup final comeback against Northampton Saints.

He is currently fourth-choice out-half for Ireland and it is highly unlikely that he will be involved in any Six Nations squads this season, barring injury to other rivals ahead of him.

It is time for him to step up and prove he has what it takes to fill Sexton's impressive boots.

What this means for Racing Metro

The Paris-based club suffered an embarrassing Heineken Cup exit this season and are struggling to re-qualify as they languish in eighth place Their millionaire owner Lorenzetti – known as French rugby's Roman Abramovich – pumps €20m annually into the club and is wasting no time attempting to arrest his club's under-achievement. Welsh star Jamie Roberts is the latest star on his radar.

Few other Irish players have starred for Top 14 clubs – Trevor Brennan was a notable exception but his Heineken Cup and league championship wins with Toulouse were achieved at the expense of his international career.

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