Sunday 18 March 2018

Madigan the only loser on a win, win day for Irish rugby

Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton with his son Luca, wife Laura and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup match between Ireland and New Zealand. Picture credit: Aurélien Meunier / SPORTSFILE
Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton with his son Luca, wife Laura and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup match between Ireland and New Zealand. Picture credit: Aurélien Meunier / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So he comes back as he went away with more than a little surprise. And if the IRFU were caught napping when Fintan Drury and Jacky Lorenzetti sat down to originally chew the transfer cud, this time the governing body has been up with the larks.

Johnny Sexton and Joe Schmidt were pictured together at the Women's World Cup in Paris, and I suspect that their conversation played a significant role in yesterday's developments.

The Ireland coach was clearly a man on a mission. For many reasons Schmidt wants not just Sexton but every Irish player back in the IRFU fold ahead of the build-up to the World Cup.

It is an admirable aspiration, and while I do not share the concern over game time for players contracted to English or particularly French clubs, I do have sympathy with the Irish management when attempting to prepare for an international without the pivotal piece in his jigsaw.

Having Sexton back in situ at the home he loves so well sends out a very positive message ahead of England 2015.

It is a statement of intent from the Six Nations champions that no stone will be left unturned in getting Schmidt to where he wants to be.

The objective is to have the most complete home-based Irish squad in the best condition possible to go the whole way. In that key respect, Sexton's return to Irish rugby is massive.

From a purely Leinster perspective it makes for an interesting conundrum. Great news for Matt O'Connor (who has yet to work with the first-choice Ireland out-half) of course, but the incumbents No 10s - Jimmy Gopperth and particularly Ian Madigan - will hardly be dancing in the streets around D4 at this news now.

For Madigan, it emphasises the need for some serious decision-making ahead. Well though he played on limited opportunity last season, it has been a frustrating time for him since Sexton's departure. I do feel for him.

When his succession to the Sexton throne seemed a matter of course, along came Gopperth from Newcastle - and nobody could question O'Connor's selection.

Gopperth has been a revelation, but then so too has Madigan in his role as impact replacement, but when playing No 12 rather than No 10.

Two out halves into one is bad enough - take it from someone who knows - but three into one is beyond redemption. It is the last thing Madigan wants or needs as the 2014/15 season looms.

With Gopperth his only rival, the advice for Madigan naturally was to stay put at Leinster, but with Sexton now confirmed to be on his way back it's decision time with a capital D for the talented out-half-cum-centre.

From an Irish rugby perspective, not least in terms of marketing, having Sexton based back in Dublin is top box office. He is indisputably our No 1 player now that Brian O'Driscoll has retired. And with respect to Paul O'Connell, possibly Conor Murray, maybe Rob Kearney or Tommy Bowe, nobody else come close in terms of star appeal and marketability.

He may be an on-field grump with a quick-fired temper but he is also the consummate professional and an ideal ambassador for the game - of which the governing body is only too well aware.


O'Driscoll's retirement will have freed up the funds to make Sexton and his advisers the type of financial offer he could not refuse.

He moved to Racing Metro on a matter of financial principle in 2013, and while it's not quite a similar agenda now, the bean-counters in Tom Grace's office in Lansdowne Road will have been better equipped to deal with the demands this time round.

He is now, following O'Driscoll's retirement, ahead of Jamie Heaslip as our highest earner and I defy anyone to argue that he shouldn't be, given his status and worth to Irish rugby on the field and off.

While I don't quite share the widespread panic at Irish players accepting the French euro, I do support the IRFU in keeping as many as they can within these shores as the preferred option.

The lure of the Top 14 will not go away and I expect there to be other established Irish stars destined for that road, but credit must go where credit is due and on this occasion it is to everyone involved in the contracts and marketing departments at Lansdowne Road.

Having Sexton back where he is most comfortable makes for win, win.

The talented Madigan might not agree but what a boost for Irish rugby, before a ball is even kicked. Welcome home Johnny.

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