Monday 14 October 2019

'Loss of Sexton is a wake-up call to keep eye on the ball'

Conor George

JONATHAN SEXTON'S imminent departure to Paris to play with Racing Metro is proof that some nightmares do come true.

Sexton is the first truly marquee player to reject the security blanket that is the IRFU's central contract system for the more lucrative and more pressurised world of Top 14 rugby with the Paris club.

The fear is that Sexton's departure for France is possibly the start of an exodus of Ireland's marquee players to the Top 14. Where one goes others usually follow and French clubs will surely view Sexton's recruitment as encouragement to approach more Irish players in the future.

It is an issue the IRFU and the provinces are well aware of and Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson hopes this development will prompt discussions so as to guard against future raids by the French.

"I think Irish rugby might benefit from a review of our set-up," he acknowledged. "We have had this structure in place for 15 years now and maybe losing Jonathan to France will prompt a review between all the provinces and the IRFU organisation."

Dawson was at pains not to be drawn into a 'what if' debate about Sexton's failed negotiations with the IRFU.

The out-half did suggest he would be playing with Leinster next season had he been negotiating directly with the province but that the Union's intransigence when it came to their negotiations prompted his decision to join Racing.

"Jonathan is the first high-profile player to be successfully recruited. Perhaps the time is right for a discussion. What we all want is to keep our best players playing here."

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As things currently stand the provinces cannot 'top up' the salaries of those on central contracts from their own reserves.

The IRFU are the sole negotiators for those specific contracts. The individual provinces are then given a fixed sum by the Union for the rest of their staff, inclusive of playing roster and back-room teams.

They are allowed to use monies from their own coffers over and above the monies provided by the IRFU to encourage only those not centrally contracted – Irish and overseas players.

It is obvious that losing a player of Sexton's ability and importance is an issue for Leinster and, by association, the other two main provinces, Ulster and Munster, who surely now cannot be all that comfortable with the Union doing the negotiating with their players.

Stephen Ferris is understood to have suffered similar frustrations in his negotiations with the IRFU and the suggestion in March was that he is contemplating a switch to Japan for next season.

It is an uncomfortable time for the provinces at present. Sexton's capture by Racing Metro will give them and other French teams encouragement when it comes to targeting top-end Irish players for recruitment.

That is the real fear for Dawson and his counterparts in Munster and Ulster. Sexton has bolted but they know they need to close the gate before more of their thoroughbreds escape.

Leinster are better placed than their domestic rivals to weather the loss of a player of Sexton's standing, by dint of their reputation and their lauded Academy, which boasts graduates like Fergus McFadden, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O'Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Devin Toner and Sexton himself.

There is a worry in Leinster that some graduates – Felix Jones and Andrew Conway being examples – are being poached by the likes of Munster, but those cases are too few yet to be considered a worrying trend.

Leinster's successes are easily quantifiable. They are three-time Heineken Cup champions and play their second final in seven days tomorrow night against Ulster in the Pro12. It is a testament to their professionalism, ambition and standing within the game.

"It is hugely important that we continue to win trophies," said Dawson. "The Heineken Cup is the main target but that wasn't a possibility after January so you move on and adapt.

"Winning the Amlin Challenge Cup was a huge feather in our cap and everyone involved with Leinster gave it the absolute respect it deserved. Now we have the Pro12 final this weekend and, of course, we want to win that too.

"You continually strive to be a winning team. Winning trophies speaks to your legacy, which is why our success in winning the B&I Cup last Friday night was also hugely important to us. We're in three finals this season, which is a great achievement for the players and the province."

Leinster's competitors in Ireland often lament the benefit they have being based in the capital city. Dawson acknowledges the advantages when it comes to attracting sponsors and filling stadia for home matches. It would be churlish to simply credit geography for Leinster's rise to prominence.

That would do a disservice to an organisation that has been fastidious in their attention to detail and their business model.

That they have the facility to move their bigger games to the Aviva Stadium and reap the financial rewards that accrues is beneficial. But they still have to sell out the Aviva for those games!

"It's up to others to judge whether we are leaders in what we do," said Dawson.

"Of course it helps that we are in a capital city. We have access to a bigger playing pool and a bigger fan base which attracts sponsors and corporate interest.

"In a recession a capital city will recover first. All those aspects contribute. We are very proactive in ensuring we are continually evolving and learning.

"We actively study how soccer and American Football organisations operate. Those sports have been professional long before rugby in Ireland so we look to them and how they function for inspiration."

It's clearly working. Leinster have taken club/provincial rugby in Ireland to new heights and now is the time to safeguard against further unravelling, which is why the Leinster chief executive hopes discussions will be forthcoming about taking the game forward.

He has not understated an issue that has the potential to devastate the Irish rugby scene. A system must be developed to ensure that our top players, like Sexton, do not suffer financially by remaining in Ireland.

There will always be individual players who will want to travel for experience and that works both ways, with many of the incoming professionals from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Britain enhancing the game at the top level here.

It is imperative, however, that any player wishing to pursue his career in the uniform of an Irish team does not have to sacrifice the monetary rewards that his talent deserves.

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