Sport Rugby

Wednesday 11 December 2019

First trickle to France could turn into a flood

George Hook

Jonny Sexton did not wake up in recent weeks to find the head of a horse in his bed from 'The Godfather'. However he did receive an offer he could not refuse.

The big money at Racing Metro has dealt a severe blow to Ireland and a near-fatal one to Leinster.

Irish players have resisted the lure of foreign money for two reasons. The Charlie McCreevy tax initiative has been crucial to many rugby retirees whose poor investment strategies devastated their savings. As the players must finish their careers in Ireland to qualify for the largesse, it has been a telling consideration when weighing up offers from abroad.

Equally important has been the IRFU's plan to extend the players' careers by carefully monitoring the number of games played. If Brian O'Driscoll had taken up a French offer some years ago, he would not now be considering a Lions tour.

The result has been that Ireland has punched way above its weight in the Heineken Cup. In effect, this country has been entering international teams in a club competition.

Professional rugby, unlike soccer, has never paid enough to allow the players to retire without the need to work again. In their mid-30s, the first generation of paid players were forced to seek jobs without any qualifications or work experience.


Dion O'Cuinneagain, when captain of Ireland, went back to Cape Town never having been inside a delivery room while his class-mates had brought over a hundred babies into the world. Happily, the South African – like Niall Hogan before him – carved out a medical career.

If, as rumoured, Sexton has been offered €750,000 a year, then he was absolutely correct to make the move. Careful management of his money over the next number of years would give him a nest egg that might even dwarf that of O'Driscoll, the wealthiest Irish rugby player to date.

He might then return to Ireland to see out his time as a Dan Parks figure at Connacht to qualify for the tax break and have a secure future to which he can look forward.

Sexton's performances for Ireland will be damaged by the schedule of games in France. This weekend, while the Irish squad prepares, the French domestic season carries on apace.

He will be less available for Ireland squad sessions, not playing regularly with Eoin Reddan and, above all, much more in danger of injury.

France coach Philippe Saint-Andre bemoaned his difficulties this week, saying: "We will keep our fingers crossed for no more injuries. We have three days together from Saturday to Monday. It's frustrating. The Six Nations for France is like running the 100 metres and starting 10 metres behind everybody else."

However, Leinster are the real losers as, unlike with Ireland, the fly-half is gone, perhaps forever. Many see Sexton as the young kid on the block, whereas by the end of this year's Lions tour he will be 28 with two years to serve abroad.

Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon is coming up on 34 and still earning big bucks. He is the role model for Sexton, who must put lifetime security before playing in Ireland. A few highly-paid years would make for a tidy nest egg and a satisfied agent.

Ian Madigan is the current likely replacement but not yet ready to fill the big boots left behind. Leinster – powered by the commercial imperative of putting bums on seats – may seek a foreign signing.

Should that happen, and with Ronan O'Gara's pending retirement, Ireland might be left with just two Irish-qualified fly-halves playing in this country, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley. Neither look good enough for international duty. Suddenly the picture looks a lot less rosy.

For over a decade, Ireland had David Humphreys, O'Gara and Sexton to choose from. Injury to one was never fatal to the Irish cause. Now retirement and the departure of Sexton will have the Irish coach in similar trepidation to Saint-Andre in Paris this weekend.


Sexton is absolutely right to take the money and fly to France. His loss is huge but its effect on his team-mates may be even greater.

By and large there has been a belief that Irish players would resist the lure of filthy lucre because of the protected life afforded them by the IRFU systems.

Sexton has destroyed that illusion, and others will look at the money and instruct their agents to get on the phone to check on opportunities abroad. The Sexton trickle could become a flood.

In far off Toulouse, Trevor Brennan may be wearing a wry smile. The former milkman, with his Irish career at a crossroads, moved to France, where he found fame and fortune. His phone may also be ringing this weekend.

This is bad news for club and country but good news for a man that like his team-mates puts his body at risk every weekend and is almost certainly assured a painful middle age.

It is only fair that he gets well-paid for it. Good luck to him.

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