The Gain Line: Johnny gives Leinster the blues
18:13, 25 Jan 2013
With the announcement of Jonathan Sexton’s move to France, we ask whether this is good or bad for Irish rugby...
It’s big enough news that it’s the top story on the Independent's website and the second most prominent story on the Irish Times' website below a photograph of an ice-covered warehouse in Chicago where temperatures are reportedly as low as minus 45 degrees.
The news that Jonathan Sexton has signed a two-year contract with Racing Metro will also send a chill wind through the IRFU offices as it emerged they couldn’t match the numbers the French side put in front of the Irish out-half.
The move raises more than a few questions but the most pertinent among them are: Will this move initiate a trend where more players look abroad for more lucrative
deals? Is this good or bad for Irish rugby? Will the move affect Sexton’s chances of remaining first-choice for the next World Cup?
If one looks at similar cases in the past, such as Tommy Bowe’s emergence as Ireland’s most dangerous winger while he was with the Ospreys, then the answer to the last question is ‘no’.
This deal, of course, will take Sexton up to 2015 and he may very well be back in Ireland by the time the tournament starts. In the meantime, it will be intriguing to see if Leinster coach Joe Schmidt gives Ian Madigan the responsibility of leading his side next season.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that Craig Gilroy came through the Ulster grades and flourished in the European Cup while Bowe was in Wales. Had Bowe stayed with his home province, would we have witnessed those sparkling performances against Fiji and Argentina in November? There’s no way of knowing for sure but what one can say with certainty is that he wouldn’t have got as many opportunities. They are not in direct competition for a place in the side but Andrew Trimble’s ability to play on the right or left wing would probably have meant that we wouldn’t have seen Gilroy emerge as an Irish international so soon.
Wales, too, have seen a number of players leave for France in the past decade and the exodus has coincided with one of the most successful periods in their rugby history. They won Grand Slams in 2005, 2008 and 2012 and maybe only New Zealand can match them for the frequency with which they produce some of the best young players in world rugby.
On that point, Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss had this to say about Connacht’s 19-year-old Robbie Henshaw before tonight’s game against the England Saxons: “We're really excited about his development. He had to step into the breach when (Connacht) lost Gavin Duffy and he was playing 13 earlier in the year. When he had to put his hand up for that, he's done an exceptional job.” In different circumstances, Madigan should get his chance with Leinster, something that would not have come along had Sexton decided to stay at home.
Much more worrying for the IRFU is the remuneration packages they are able to offer their players. The organisation’s chief executive, Philip Browne, said about discussions with the player, “... we remained in the fight right up until the last possible moment to keep Johnny in Ireland with a very strong offer but, ultimately, following negotiations with the player’s agent, we had no option but to take the decision that it would not be in the best interest of Irish rugby to chase the reported financial incentives being offered.”
Those financial incentives total somewhere around €2million over two years. In recent years, Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll decided to remain in Ireland when they would have been rewarded more substantially elsewhere. In 2010, O’Driscoll admitted it he had given serious thought to a move to France. “I don't rule anything out... I did have a big interest in moving. I was a bit dismayed about Leinster going through three coaches in three years,” he said. “I wondered were Leinster going anywhere, but Michael Cheika gave us that stability. But that doesn't mean you have to stay in one club for your whole career. If the situation arose, I'd certainly be open to the idea of it.” His point about the direction Leinster were going at the time is interesting and relevant to Sexton’s move. Does the out-half feel the best days are behind this generation of Leinster players? Three European Cups in four years was a punishing standard to maintain. Maybe he feels he has achieved what he wanted to achieve with the province and, at 27 years old, the time is right to experience a different rugby environment.
Reaction to the move has been mixed but it’s hard to fault him for wanting to make as much money as he can while he is considered arguably the best number 10 in the northern hemisphere. And, as the stories of his inspirational half-time speech against Northampton Saints in the 2011 European Cup final illustrated, he is fiercely ambitious and strong-willed.
While the move is bad news for Leinster fans, it will certainly open doors for the likes of Madigan and that’s no bad thing. The worry for the IRFU is the doors it might open for other Irish players considering similar moves.
Follow eircom SportsHub on Twitter @eircomSportsHub
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882