Sexton’s French move will concern Irish supporters

A BIG money transfer shook Irish rugby in the past week, but all the attention will now focus on the RBS Six Nations championship which starts this weekend. Ireland heads to the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff to play Wales on Saturday in a quite optimistic mood, writes Nickey Brennan.

A BIG money transfer shook Irish rugby in the past week, but all the attention will now focus on the RBS Six Nations championship which starts this weekend. Ireland heads to the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff to play Wales on Saturday in a quite optimistic mood, writes Nickey Brennan.

Games between these great rivals rarely disappoint. Pessimistic is the best way to describe the mood in our closest neighbour’s camp as recent results have been disappointing. And that is when Ireland needs to be on red alert.

The Welsh are without a number of regulars and their Head Coach is currently planning for the Lions and a trip to Australia in a couple of months. But any talk of Wales not being ready for the visit of the Irish should be quickly dismissed.

Lest anyone forgets, Wales did top the 2012 Six Nations with 10 points, two ahead of England with Ireland third on five points. Ireland is not without its injury problems with Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris all absentees.

But the major talking point has been Declan Kidney’s decision to relieve Brian O’Driscoll of the captaincy and hand the armband to Jamie Heaslip.

The role of captain has become hugely important in most sports. In the majority of cases the individual is selected for his leadership and motivational qualities.

Some thrive on responsibility

In team sports such characteristics are essential. Some GAA counties (Kilkenny being one) continue the practice of appointing the captain from their county champions. As most of their clubs have no involvement in team selection (principally at senior level), granting the captaincy to someone from the county champions is recognition of the club’s success the previous year

When a well-established player is entrusted with the captaincy it is rarely an issue, but the role may not suit every player. It is an altogether different issue when the captaincy is handed to a player who is trying to establish a permanent spot on a team.

Some may thrive on the added responsibility, but for others it can be a burden when they are trying to nail down a permanent spot. The new Irish captain, Jamie Heaslip, led Ireland during the Autumn internationals so he is already well accustomed to leading from the front.

Still, it was a big call by the Irish manager, Declan Kidney, to relieve the charismatic Brian O’Driscoll of the captain’s armband. It is one of those decisions that only time will tell if it was foolish or inspired.

As Ireland prepared for its trip to Wales the news filtered through that out-half Johnny Sexton had rejected a new IRFU contract in preference for a move to France for a reported €750,000 per annum. Sexton’s decision could have serious ramifications for Irish rugby in the future.

Players like Brian O’Driscoll have consistently rejected overtures to play in France and elsewhere, preferring to stay in Ireland with their province.

Now the big question is whether Sexton’s decision will make other well-established Irish internationals ponder a similar move to France when their contracts next comes up for negotiations.

To many people rugby is just a sport and an exciting one at that. But the reality is that rugby is now big business and the IRFU is fortunate to have a top class administrator in Philip Browne as CEO. I know Browne and his colleagues would have worked tirelessly to keep Sexton based in Ireland, but the Irish player salary structure could not be altered for one player, even one of the top players in this country.

At the top for years

Had the IRFU tampered with its salary structure the consequences would have been significant and it was entirely understandable that they choose to retain the status quo. No blame can be attached to Sexton either. He is 27 years of age and can expect to play at the top level for a few more years.

He is a professional sportsman and that means securing his future during the remaining years of his playing career. French rugby has put a very high value on Sexton’s skill and the Irishman knows that sport can be very fickle with his value changing quickly if his form dipped over the course of another year or two.

The move to France comes with plenty of risks. The French Super 14 competition is high on intensity and physicality and the rivalry between the clubs (and their wealthy owners) is equally intense. Outside of the Heineken Cup, the amount of playing time undertaken by international players involved with Irish provinces is agreed between the international and provincial management.

This ensures that the top players are not over-used and get sufficient rest time due to the multiple roles they undertake. The IRFU will not be in a position to dictate any such terms to Sexton’s new club, but I would imagine that he has a clause in his contract which will allow him to be present at all of Ireland’s training sessions.

Sexton’s absence from the Leinster set-up next year opens the door for another player to step in, but it is his decision to leave Ireland and its impact on his fellow Irish players that is the major concern. It was inevitable that a top Irish player would eventually head to France with its mega-rich rugby club owners constantly battling to be the tops in the country.

The IRFU could never be expected to compete financially with these people, but there will be big worries that Johnny Sexton’s move may be the catalyst for others to follow him in the years ahead.

Cannot blame a player

In professional sport, and particularly one with a relatively short playing career, one cannot blame any player for grasping the opportunity to set himself and his family up for life. This was one offer Johnny Sexton could not turn down. Only time will tell what impact his move to France might have on his international career and his international colleagues.