Hello everyone. Welcome back! The rugby season is cranking up and the blog will be getting back to its usual schedule after our summer downtime. We’re wonderfully refreshed after the break, thanks for asking.
So… where to begin?
The Indo is reporting that Jonny Sexton is returning to Leinster next season. And while the phrase ‘The Indo is reporting…’ should come with the usual disclaimers, the report appears pretty definitive and a bunch of other news sources have jumped on it. We’d been given a ‘you heard it here first’ last week that the deal was ‘dans le sac’.
It’s impossible to see it as anything other than great news. There has been the odd bout of griping that the IRFU could have saved a packet by leaving him in France where he was doing just fine, but such arguments miss one crucial point. The IRFU is committed to having all the players on home soil, and the model for Irish rugby that has proved reasonably successful since the dawn of professionalism has been to have the best players centrally contracted and playing their rugby for the provincial teams.
The system has its flaws and isn’t perfect, but is founded on the principal that the players’ performance is maximised by managing their gametime and ensuring that the national team’s interests are fed into by the provinces. If you don’t agree with that premise, that’s fine, but be sure to apply the same logic when, say, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson or Robbie Henshaw are negotiating their next contract. Sexton is arguably the single most important player for Ireland’s World Cup and future Six Nations chances, so if an optimally managed Sexton is just 5% better than he would otherwise be, it will be money well spent. That’s before we even get into the benefits of visibility of our star players, marketing the game to punters and other intangibles.
We’ve said before that negotiating these high-profile contracts is a thankless job; sign the player and you’ve paid him too much money, lose him and you’re too much of a penny-pincher. So it is nice to be able to say the IRFU should be given a pat on the back for a job well done. The problems arose in the first place because they dragged their heels and looked complacent, giving Racing and other suitors all the time they wanted to sweet-talk the player, but this time they’ve wasted no time, locking things down before the domestic season has even started.
Readers will recall Joe Schmidt’s lamentation during the Six Nations preparations that ‘we have lost control of the player’, and no doubt he has impressed upon those writing the paycheques the importance of keeping the players at home where they can best manage them. Sexton is a card-carrying member of the Schmidt fanclub and it’s easy to imagine Schmidt having a hands-on role in the deal.
So, Ireland will stand to benefit. It’s a World Cup year where the players’ game exposure tends to be managed more strictly than ever. Sexton won’t get the benefit of that over the next nine months, because he won’t be here until next season, but presumably his World Cup build-up and pre-season will be managed by the IRFU now. But the biggest winner by far is Leinster. After all, Ireland still have access to the player and their frustrations in terms of Six Nations preparation time pale beside Leinster’s problem; they lost their most important player. Now they will have him back (in a year’s time) and the knock-on effect should make Leinster a more attractive proposition for other players. A Leinster with Sexton at 10 should be competing for silverware on all fronts.
There will be lots of talk of Ian Madigan being ‘the big loser here’ and it being ‘time to think about his next move’ and so on, but the be-quiffed one and everyone else would be as well ignoring it. He has an entire year before Sexton gets here and should be focusing exclusively on playing as well as he can this season; that means making himself first-choice at Leinster (whether at 10 or 12), continuing to get exposure at test level and securing his place in the World Cup squad, for which there will be significant competition. He’s contracted with Leinster until 2016 in any case, so any long, dark nights of the soul are miles down the road and there is plenty he can do to shape his career in the meantime.