Welsh exodus underlines health risk for provinces
The prospect of more Irish players leaving the nest is a grim one, says Brendan Fanning
Jonathan Davies was in the news again last week. Last summer the Welsh Lion had the temerity to retain his place for the third Test in Australia, causing ructions across this country and giving talk radio a field day – or rather a week of them. In fairness to the strapping centre, that wasn't his decision, but that of his coach Warren Gatland.
A big call by Davies himself a few days ago, however, went almost unnoticed on this side of the water, even though it was another step along a road that can be accessed just as easily from this neck of the woods.
Davies will play his rugby in Clermont next season. Along with Mike Phillips (recently turfed by Bayonne, but a free agent), Lee Byrne (Clermont), Luke Charteris and James Hook (Perpignan), Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts (Racing) and George North (Northampton), he's part of the ever-expanding crew of Taffs either cross channel or across the Severn Bridge. Whether in France or England, they are harder for Warren Gatland to control for Wales, and out of the picture for the regions, which are supposed to prop up the national side.
The second bit is bad news for Ireland because we need a competitive Pro12 in order to sustain our diet. And you could say the first bit isn't great either because the better everyone is in the Six Nations then the more money broadcasters will shell out for the rights.
More immediately, however, the decision by Davies reflects a trend that has already taken root in Wales, and we'd be unwise to presume it won't catch on here.
Jonathan Sexton's case has already rung that alarm, though it might make a different sound depending on where you're standing. If you're one of the dozen Ireland players out of contract at the end of this season, then, at first, Sexton's flight to Paris was positively sweet music. Here was a player prepared to stand up for his opinion that he deserved to be in the top bracket of Irish earners. He proved it was possible not just to talk the talk, but to follow it up with the long walk.
The problem already though is the number of miles he's had to cover. It started less than four weeks after he got back from the Lions tour, and continued unbroken for 13 games until he fetched up in Dublin for this Guinness Series, feeling, according to coach Joe Schmidt, tired and flat. Now you suspect there was an element of spin there from Schmidt, aimed at those who might consider following Sexton abroad, but clearly Ireland's first-choice outhalf is not in the shape you would want him at this time of year. And he wouldn't be like that if he had taken the inferior offer and stayed with Leinster.
This is nobody's fault; it's just a fact of life. Racing are Sexton's primary paymasters now so he does what they say. And we have no business bleating about whether they bench him or beast him from one end of the field to the other for 80 minutes.
Certainly no one in the IRFU can afford to complain, for Racing are saving them a fat salary. Not fat enough clearly, or he wouldn't have gone in the first place, but a sizeable difference nonetheless.
The next chapter in this story will be the amount of player traffic down the same road. That Sexton showed up tired and flat – you didn't need to be Nostradamus to see it coming – was better than
any press release from Lansdowne Road on the risks associated with leaving the nest.
Perhaps it balanced the news a couple of weeks earlier about the impending change in our tax legislation. Its thrust is that Irish athletes no longer have to be tax resident in Ireland in order to scoop back 40 per cent of the tax they paid on their best 10 years in this country. It's not an earth-shattering alteration, rather an adjustment that makes it easier for players to stretch their legs and walk.
The grim prospect for the IRFU is one where so many of them do what the Welsh players are doing that it will tear a hole in our provinces which will be hard to plug for Ireland as well. It's unlikely – Ireland is a much more productive environment for rugby players than Wales – but as we've seen from the ongoing uncertainty over the future of European competitions, events beyond our control could readily overtake us.
By the end of this season we'll see what direction those events have turned, for players, sponsors and supporters. And it would be a surprise if Jonathan Davies was the last man in red making the trek out of Wales.