Loyalty comes at a price
December 14, 2010
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is reportedly a target for French Top 14 club Stade Francais © PA Photos
The Year of the French was a landmark production by Ireland's national broadcaster RTE in the early 1980s, dramatising the landing by a small French force in 1798 on the Co Mayo beach-head of Kilcummin.
The term was resurrected this week to describe the tug-of-war developing between the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and wealthy French clubs over a clutch of international players out of contract at the end of the season. The story ignited when it emerged that Stade Francais had opened negotiations with representatives of Leinster and Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton with a view to securing his move to Paris after next year's World Cup.
No deal has been signed yet and indications are that the 25-year-old's preference is to stay in Ireland where international players are micro-managed in relation to the number of games they are allowed to play a season. There would be no such protection in France, whose Top 14 season is particularly arduous, and Sexton's relocation is also seen as a potential threat to his international progression which has gone swimmingly over the last 12 months.
In that time, Sexton, who as recently as 2008-09 was featuring for St Mary's in the All-Ireland League, has established himself under Declan Kidney as Ireland's first-choice No.10, earning selection ahead of the in-form Ronan O'Gara in the November internationals. O'Gara, the 33-year-old who became an Ireland centurion when replacing Sexton off the bench against South Africa last month, recently secured a two-year deal to stay with Munster and Ireland having also been linked with a move to France.
A similar scenario unfolded for his Munster, Ireland and Lions colleague second-row Donncha O'Callaghan and the link with France can be a useful bargaining tool for agents with the IRFU. That could, of course, be the case with Sexton but the fact that talks have taken place adds weight to the story as does the presence of Michael Cheika as head coach with Stade.
During his five years as head man with Leinster, the Australian oversaw Sexton's development from promising squad member to key playmaker and team leader. Having established himself as the designated back-up 10 to Felipe Contepomi, it was when the Argentinian got injured early on in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster at Croke Park that Sexton got the opportunity to properly announce himself. His performance in that match and in the final victory over Leicester Tigers confirmed his quality to Cheika and, when Contepomi departed, Sexton cemented his position with Leinster and then Ireland.
Now Cheika is sniffing around his old Leinster charges with Sexton high on his wish-list and others such as Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy and Fergus McFadden also attracting the interest of overseas suitors. It is understood that Stade believe Sexton is worth an annual salary in excess of E500,000, dwarfing his existing IRFU contract, and it would be extremely hard to turn down an offer of that magnitude.
Whatever unfolds, the IRFU, still reeling from the ticket pricing fiasco in November, are unlikely to be able to match those numbers but the transfer speculation has increased the possibility of the union coming up with a contract that would convince Sexton to further his career in Ireland.
However, with foreign investors always likely to come calling to secure post-World Cup signings, the question is should it have been left as late as this? There is the perception that the loyalty of Ireland's top players has been somewhat taken for granted while Irish provinces signed big money overseas names like Munster's Doug Howlett and Jean De Villiers, Leinster's Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde and the Ulster Springbok brigade of Ruan Pienaar, Johan Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and BJ Botha.
There are further issues to consider such as Sexton's position being filled by another expensive overseas signing with no guarantee he will be as effective as the man he is replacing. Also, the reality is that Ireland do not have the playing resources to follow England's lead and ban those playing abroad from representing their country (a move that would immediately deny them Tommy Bowe and Geordan Murphy).
However, there are positives aspects to it all. Letting others pay the big money for Ireland's best players, as Ospreys and Leicester Tigers do with Bowe and Murphy respectively, would be a major cash-saving exercise and one that, based on that duo, would not necessarily affect their international effectiveness.
If a cloth-cutting approach were adopted rather than a search for foreign replacements it would also allow the provinces to bring through more home-grown players and see what they are capable of. Leinster's Ian Madigan is an example of a talented youngster capable of grabbing the opportunity presented by the departure of Sexton which could be good news for Ireland coach Kidney.
Much to ponder, then, and the next couple of months should clarify a great deal. The invasion of 1798 was a failure, the French unable to use the Irish to establish European domination. This time around, the Year of the French has a greater chance of success - which might not be the worst-case scenario it is being painted to be.
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