“Sexton Attendu” read the headline of French newspaper “Midi Olympique” a week ago – Sexton Expected. Leo Huisman reported that Leinster star Jonathan Sexton has met with Racing Metro 92 owner Jacky Lorenzetti on two separate occasions. With a gentlemen’s agreement between French clubs preventing clubs from announcing signings during the season, it falls to enterprising journalists like Huisman to inform the public of such developments. Downplaying his club’s efforts to sign the Irishman, Lorenzetti has described the chances of signing him as “tiny”. The contract on offer to the 27 year-old Sexton is reportedly in the region of €750,000 per annum, a mark of the respect Lorenzetti has for the St. Mary’s playmaker. While the deal is far from done, the Irish rugby-loving public has been aghast at the thought of Sexton leaving these shores and following so many Welsh and English players to greener pastures in the land of equality, fraternity and liberty.
Many reports and articles have cited Brian O’Driscoll and Donncha O’Callaghan’s respective flirtations with the Top 14 around the end of their own contracts, and even the quite ridiculous suggestion that Ronan O’Gara would return to the land of his birth and try out to punt in the NFL as he neared the end of his Munster contract. In those cases, it was immediately clear that the players’ agents were stirring some controversy and buzz to up the ante in their inevitable contract renegotiations with the IRFU. For Sexton, though, it has a good deal more weight behind it. Sexton is young enough to take up a two-year contract with Racing with a view towards extension. He would also represent a smart move on Racing’s part, as he would be just 28 and at the peak of his powers should he line up for them next season. Unlike, say, Toulon’s move for Bryan Habana, this would be a statement of real intent to push for European glory. In whispered tones, one could even suggest that it makes sense for Jonny Sexton. What young man shouldn’t seek out his market value?
Is it something to be worked up about, though? If Sexton were to take the Gallic shilling, and ply his trade in the Parisian suburb of Colombes, would it be the body blow to Leinster and Ireland that many have predicted in recent days? Declan Kidney has even weighed in, telling ESPN that Sexton’s decision won’t be financial, and that he’s hopeful that the IRFU and the fly-half can come to a mutually beneficial agreement “that keeps Jonny in Ireland”.
All that depends largely on Jonny Sexton and his management. Should the Dubliner’s agents manage to seek assurances in any proposed contract around rest weeks before and after international breaks, training camps and Lions tours, then Ireland – and any other aspects of Sexton’s international career – shouldn’t suffer. Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney both showed great reluctance in bringing foreign-based players into Ireland squads, but for an established first choice like Sexton, this move should not adversely affect his selection. He’ll certainly be asked to play more games than he currently does at Leinster, but this is no thirtysomething who needs protection; this is a young athlete in the prime of his career, a half-dozen extra games a year would be a manageable feat for him.
The big losers in the equation, should Sexton find himself at the Stade Olympique-Yves-du-Manoir in September, would appear to be Leinster. As Sexton is centrally-contracted, Leinster couldn’t redirect his salary of about €300,000 to a replacement from overseas. The IRFU would keep their money and Leinster would have to fill Sexton’s place from within their own budget, preferably from within their own squad. All is not lost, however, as there’s a two-word answer to Leinster Branch’s worries: Ian Madigan.
Madigan has proven himself well capable of taking the reins while Sexton has sat out under the IRFU’s Elite Player Cotton Wool and Bubble Wrap policy, and has recently improved the weakest part of his game, placekicking, immeasurably – overtaking Fergus McFadden and Isa Nacewa to become Leinster’s no. 2 option from the tee. Such has been Madigan’s impact on games over the last season and a half; he has been shoehorned into lineups at full-back, centre and even wing. If Sexton jets off to Paris for a bumper payday, Madigan can be trusted to keep the champagne flowing on the RDS pitch, with Leinster’s contribution to Sexton’s contract freed up to find the next Shaun Berne or Andrew Goodman for support.
Will he go, though? As Cian Tracey on balls.ie points out, Sexton has won everything there is to be won with Leinster. It might appeal to him to try to add a Top 14 to his already swollen trophy cabinet, which may yet have an Amlin Challenge Cup medal added by June. Racing Metro are also looking to move to a new, dedicated stadium by 2014. They want a marquee signing to steer their new project into a new era and are willing to throw tons of money at Sexton. He could even avoid the notorious French wealth tax of 75% if he either settles for less than €700,000 or finds a little château just inside the border of more libertarian Belgium. Sexton’s fiancée, schoolteacher Laura Priestly, is also young enough to make the most of a continental spell. Priestly shies away from being portrayed as a “WAG”, so would conceivably seek work in her new home. She’s a highly educated young woman who could walk into a job at any of Paris’s almost 30 English language schools.
As a Leinster fan, I’m hopeful the IRFU does everything in their power to keep Sexton in Dublin. If, however, the lure of the Racing project and the French chequebook proves too much, we shouldn’t be distraught. It’s a chance for Sexton to make his mark as Europe’s best field general and we should wish him “Bon chance”.
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