Monday 27 January 2020

Leinster pour cold water on French reports that Lyon are in for Johnny Sexton

Leinster captain Jonathan Sexton leads his side out
Leinster captain Jonathan Sexton leads his side out
David Kelly

David Kelly

LEINSTER will later today pour the coldest of Evian on suggested reports emanating from France that Jonathan Sexton will once more indulge in a money-spinning move, this time to league leaders Lyon.

But as they do so, they will not be alone in wondering why such a story has emerged – and from where.

French transfer stories are as common-place as Premiership tittle-tattle in the red tops but no less worthy of dismissal because of that.

The white smoke always starts somewhere even if the trail does not always lead to a signature on a contract.

Several reports in French media this morning claim that representatives of Sexton and Lyon met on French soil recently; naturally they would have done given the sides met in a Champions Cup game last month.

Top 14 leaders Lyon have slumped in their debut European campaign but are keen to challenge on two fronts next season but are keen to find a replacement for 34-year-old play-maker, Jonathan Wisnieswski.

Limo Sopoaga (Wasps) and Bernard Foley (Kubota Spears) are also on the big-spending Lyon radar; perhaps even Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.

However, in the French media, many of these stories emanate from the clubs themselves so, while the actual idea may be fanciful, its genesis should not be dismissed.

They have already confirmed that Wallaby Liam Gill will leave next summer in a league where the summer carousel of star names can be quite dizzying for those of us used to the calm waters of the PRO14.

Like Wisnieswski, Sexton, however, is also 34 and is also contracted to the IRFU until 2021 which means Lyon would have to fork out a hefty fee for his services, perhaps running into several hundred thousands of euro.

Currently injured, there has been a predictable post-World Cup rush to urge incoming Irish head coach Andy Farrell to summarily evict him, and several other apparent accomplices in Ireland's dismal Japan exit, from his first Six Nations squad.

And, despite being mentioned by many as a potential replacement captain after Rory Best's retirement, there have also been calls to leapfrog the out-half's candidacy and instead plump for the fresher, younger voice that is James Ryan.

Farrell will wisely caution against a needlessly rash response to Ireland's World Cup campaign and, even if Sexton is struggling to make the kick-off against Scotland, it would be a dire mis-calculation for the head coach to dismiss a decade and more of vast experience and nous.

He will, obviously, seek to dilute the over-arching authority Sexton seemed to enjoy as Joe Schmidt's on-field leader but only a churlish coach would view the out-half as either a threat or as surplus to requirements.

With Joey Carbery's fitness always uncertain, and Jack Carty unable to build upon his 2019 development, it is not as if Farrell has a ready-made 2020 alternative ready and waiting.

By the time he tours Australia and exploits the November internationals, he may do so by 2021. There is too much uncertainty for him to risk dismissing the certainty that Sexton brings to the table, regardless of advancing age or outside observations about his dwindling form.

Whether Sexton – more likely those that either directly, or even indirectly – has been keen to air a pointed public message, however unsubtle, as to his vast value to Irish rugby remains unclear.

He did that when he left Leinster to join Racing 92 in 2013; then, there was no question but that his unchallenged eminence as Ireland's starting ten would ensure the IRFU relaxed their infamous 'unwritten rule' regarding the selection of overseas players.

They would not resort to such indulgence now.

It may be that any negotiations – if indeed one can even label any engagements in November as 'negotiations' at all – might have centred on the possibility that Sexton may indeed fancy one final fling when he comes off contract in 2021.

He has also vowed to feature in one final Lions tour, in South African that summer, and perhaps the prospect of a final hurrah, a chance at a second shot at redemption after his under-whelming two-year stint in Racing 92, appeals to him.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen, no more than Farrell, will have his own thoughts on succession planning.

Before Schmidt ever contemplated such a thing, Cullen has opted to play Ross Byrne ahead of Sexton and after the Joey Carbery shenanigans, Leinster will be keen to ensure they are in control of what happens in their ten position – nobody else. Byrne is highly regarded, so too Ciaran Frawley - ironically also due to speak with media later today.

Cullen's firmness of approach will embrace Sexton, too,as it has many other Irish stars he has not been slow to remove from his first-team if form alternatives are available.

For now, they will make all the right noises about hanging on to their talisman when Stuart Lancaster speaks with the media this lunchtime.

And Sexton will follow, no doubt.

But everyone involved knows that this story is nearer to the end than the beginning.

And in a professional sport, sentiment will not detain those who want to make the best of themselves.

Sexton, Cullen and Farrell are three wise men who are likely to have some interesting conversations over the festive period.

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