Wednesday 21 March 2018

Has straight-talking Sexton been too honest for his own good?

Out-half's candour may work against him in possible future IRFU contract talks

Jonathan Sexton admits he never wanted to leave Leinster
Jonathan Sexton admits he never wanted to leave Leinster
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On the way to the Lions' victory reception in Sydney Opera House last June, Jonny Sexton went to the front of the team bus to sing 'Don't Look Back in Anger'.

His interpretation of the Oasis hit was soon drowned out in a jocular chorus of boos, prompting Sexton's switch to 'Bread of Heaven', something much more to the taste of his predominantly Welsh audience. The moment might have been a gentle metaphor for how professional rugby does its business.

Looking back in anger is not considered especially wise in dealings with a national federation if, at any time in the future, you might hope to be back in their employ.

Yet, a quality that makes Sexton so likeable has always been his willingness to step over the conventions of politesse or group-speak to articulate an honest opinion. To this end, his engaging diary of last season – 'Becoming a Lion' – opens a remarkable window into the stresses, hurts and insecurities of a professional life in rugby.

Sexton's candour in relation to negotiations with the IRFU over a possible new contract makes for a particularly riveting read.


He never wanted to leave Leinster. Indeed, in an interview with this newspaper last May, he outlined his frustrations at a process that had remained unresolved right up to just one week before Ireland's opening game in the Six Nations.

The book offers a more detailed and figure-specific diary of those days. By late November last, the Union's only offer of an improvement on his annual salary was relatively miniscule. An increase of €5,000 a year with the existing match bonuses, or a €25,000 increase with bonuses discontinued.

For a three-time Heineken Cup winner, now established as Ireland's number one out-half, the sense of dismissiveness was palpable.

"Am I offended?" writes Sexton. "Yes. They are taking the p***. Am I surprised? Not really."

It is well known that Union officials did not warm to what they considered the abrasive negotiating style of Sexton's agent, Fintan Drury, but the apparent disinterest shown in keeping one of Europe's most coveted fly-halves at home now makes for jarring reading.

By mid-January, French newspapers were reporting an offer from Racing Metro in Paris of something between €750,000-€800,000 per annum for Sexton's services. At no point did Drury or his client expect the IRFU to compete with that kind of arithmetic but Sexton was left crestfallen when, soon after, the Union delivered what was deemed a "final offer".

The new deal was for €100,000 per annum less than the highest-paid Irish player, believed to be Jamie Heaslip.

In his desperation to salvage some kind of resolution, Sexton recalls leaving a phone message for Philip Browne, the Union's chief executive, and calling Joe Schmidt in the hope that he might have been able to broker something. To this day he is unaware if Schmidt even had time to attempt such an intervention.

Because, by lunchtime the following day, an IRFU statement was released to media, confirming that Sexton would not be playing his club rugby in Ireland from season's end. "Almost as if they'd had one prepared in advance," he writes.

After training that day, Sexton recalls returning to his room in Carton House, lying on the bed and crying.

'Becoming a Lion' carries a selection of disbelieving texts from colleagues as word spread that he would not be playing his club rugby in Ireland next season.

The popular assumption seems to be that Sexton will return home when his two-year contract in the French capital runs its course. This, though, is certainly not a given. As Sexton, himself, admits the Union may not then "want to push the boat out for an out-half who is approaching his 30th birthday".

There is also the danger of certain officials taking exception to his candour in the book about negotiations that, ordinarily, remain private. That would be a pity.

Because Sexton's honesty has been the refreshing constant of his life in rugby and this story is faithful to that characteristic.

Even his relationship with Ronan O'Gara, now a Racing Metro clubmate in Paris, is covered without apparent reticence. He explains the famous Croke Park picture of him bellowing into a grounded O'Gara's ear after a Leinster Heineken Cup try, by returning us to Thomond Park one month earlier and an altercation between the two in which the Corkman reputedly told Sexton that he was "nothing."

O'Gara, we are told, sent his new clubmate a picture of his handshake with the Racing President, Jacky Lorenzetti, just three hours before this year's Amlin Challenge Cup final.

"He's a gas man," writes Sexton. Perhaps the nearest he can bring himself to euphemism.

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