Friday 13 December 2019

Deal is a double edged sword for club and country

Jonathan Sexton
Jonathan Sexton

Sexton's lucrative move could spark exodus of province's talent, writes Brendan Fanning

There is a scene in the TV series Breaking Bad – methadone for refugees from The Wire – where Skyler, wife of a science teacher turned methamphetamine cook, shows her husband Walt where all their money is being stashed.

Dutifully, he would hand over the takings from each batch, and she would launder what she could and store the rest. She had to rent a lock-up specially for the leftovers. One day she rolls up the shutter and shows him how much they have amassed. Walt's jaw hits the floor when he sees the fruits of his labour: an industrial-sized pallet, groaning under the weight of all those big dollar bundles.

I don't know if Jacky Lorenzetti, owner of Racing Metro, is a devotee of the series, and if so did he send Jonathan Sexton a link to the scene, with a one line message attached – 'C'est pour toi!'

Either way, the enormity of the sum involved is good news for Sexton on two fronts: it gives him a head start in whatever he has planned for the afterlife, which hopefully is a long way off (he is 27); and it mutes any chance of fans whingeing that he is leaving Leinster at a sensitive time in their history. Hard to pass up that kind of cash, particularly if you operate in a limited earning window, and have a clued-in accountant on the case.

It was not the only criterion though. Sexton is due to be married in the summer, and a couple of years in Paris looks like a nice start to that phase of his life. The club he is joining are very ambitious about where they want to be next year: the top four of the Top 14. They have a bit of work to do yet to be sure of a place in next season's Heineken Cup, but Racing are making all the shapes you would expect of a team with long-term success on their minds.

Despite its huge playing numbers and vast resources, France doesn't produce many superstars at outhalf. Sexton fits the bill for them, and now they will use him as a calling card to recruit others.

Clearly this is not something Leinster will be able to do. In their drive to the top of Europe from 2009-2012, they were able to attract top-class talent on the basis of who was already in the squad, the coach Joe Schmidt, the facilities – which are excellent – and the salaries, which are not too shabby. From the moment their flight touched down in Dublin in the early hours of May 24, 2009, with their first Heineken Cup as hand luggage, they were coming home to a new existence. And they have made the most of it.

The exodus will get under way now, however. From front of house we have Sexton leaving, followed, you'd suspect, at the end of the season by Isa Nacewa and Heinke van der Merwe. From the back-up pool, Andrew Conway is en route to Munster, an odd career choice, and Fionn Carr to Connacht. Further back in the pack, Tom Sexton, their fourth-choice hooker, is off to Melbourne. And that's before you even get to the elder statesmen: the outstanding captain Leo Cullen, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.

Managing that process you have Joe Schmidt. His position now is intriguing. Having signed on for one more year himself – his contract is up in summer 2014 – he was hardly in a powerful position to persuade Sexton to stay, no matter how evident the mutual respect. By then the coach will have been with Leinster for four seasons. On top of the previous four in Clermont, you envisage him bringing the family back to New Zealand, getting on the Super Rugby merry-go-round, and getting off it to coach the All Blacks.

In the circumstances, Leinster will be desperate for him to stay. Being the man he is, you'd expect him to move heaven and earth to right the ship before it keels over, and then to make his decision. Replacing Sexton will be central to all of that.

This is where the IRFU come in. At a time like this, the default is to lace up your boots and give the Union a bit of a kicking for letting a star name leave. If they hadn't come across with a decent wedge, enough money to make Sexton feel he was valued appropriately relative to his team-mates, then the shoeing would have been fair enough. You'd have to say €450k-500k was a decent offer.

Its timing is open to question however. Sexton raised the issue of a contract extension last August. The IRFU didn't get round to it until after the November series. Typically, they leave contract talks till late in the day, a constant source of unease to players.

Perhaps they felt that negotiations with Sexton's agent, Fintan Drury, would be protracted in any case, so better to slot the tedium into a shorter window. Either way, if they had started in August, would Drury have encouraged his client to sign up before shaking the trees to see what other suitors might fall out?

Financially, it's a big win for the agent, the player, and the IRFU bean counters. Sexton's leaving allows Drury, and other agents, to do business in France again without being dismissed as Dutch auctioneers. Sexton is about to embark on an exciting and well-rewarded new chapter to his life. And the union can save themselves a fat salary. Maybe not so much that you'd need a lock-up for storage, but enough to be going on with. And it's not as if Sexton is, as they say, 'breaking bad'.

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