On Friday afternoon, our Twitter timeline was like a morgue. It was as if there was a death in the family. Johnny Sexton, the icon of Leinster rugby, would not be staying with his boyhood province, instead signing a lucrative contract with flash Parisian moneybags Racing Metro. After being knocked out of Europe the previous weekend, it felt like Armageddon for Leinster fans.
Now that we’ve had the weekend to process the bad news, hopefully we can offer a bit more perspective than on Friday, when Palla was tweeting through the tears… here’s how we see it.
1. It’s bad news for Ireland
Some commentators felt the move might actually be positive for Irish rugby; Sexton will hardly disimprove in Paris, and it elevates Madigan to a probable starting role at Leinster. More Irish fly-halves will be starting big games. Such an argument looks like a curious emphasis of quantity over quality. It is great to have as many Irish 10s playing high level rugby as possible, but surely it is most important that by far the best we have is playing in Ireland? If you don’t put much stock in the IRFU’s ploy of keeping the players under their central watch, then fine, but the players appear to appreciate their game-time being managed (to an extent) and it has hardly done Sexton’s test career any harm that he plays his club rugby with Dorce outside, as well as the other cabal of Leinster internationals. The net effect is a negative for Irish rugby in general; we’d be better off with Sexton at Leinster. Plus, as we will discuss in more detail below, this could open the doors to other players leaving – which is definitely bad for Ireland.
2. The IRFU has a case to answer
Without being inside the negotiating rooms, we cannot pinpoint the blame on any one individual or body, but at the very least, the IRFU have a lot to answer for on this one. How did they let the jewel in their crown get away? Did they undervalue just how good and marketable a player Sexton is? Going by Thornley and O’Reilly and his godfather Billy Keane, Sexton’s camp were unhappy that contract negotiations started so late and that the IRFU’s initial offer was no higher than Sexton currently earns. Although he signed a two-year contract last time around, we understand that those negotiations were fraught, with Sexton unhappy at the IRFU’s offer of less than O’Gara (his reserve at the time) was earning. An overspill of these bad vibes was probably brought into these negotiations. The IRFU would not have been required to necessarily match the Racing offer; Sexton wanted parity with the top paid players in the country – a fair evluation of his ability, then - but the IRFU would not meet him there.
The money men at 4 Lansdowne Road may not be completely displeased that they won’t have to pay big bucks to Sexton but still have him for Ireland, but that’s an extraordinally short-sighted view. Coming as it did in the week when Puma pulled the plug on their current kit deal, we should consider this – Sexton’s image rights are no longer controlled by the union, meaning any kit manufacturer will lower their offer commensurate with the fact that one of Ireland’s most marketable assets cannot promote their gear.
3. The central contracting system has its flaws
The central contracting system has served Ireland well, no question. But its shortcomings were exposed here. Leinster were the party with the most to lose, but they could do nothing, while the IRFU negotiated with the player. Joe Schmidt must be seething; he has lost his best player, the cornerstone of his team, because of the slipshod work of others. Just imagine. Something is wrong in a system where interests and ability to act are so misaligned. And, to this point…
4. The IRFU’s relationship with the provinces must be better managed
Six months ago we blogged that the future success of Irish rugby depended on the powers that be’s ability to dovetail the provinces’ requirements with those of the national team. Instead, what we have is a situation where the mission for the year is very much about ensuring that the national team is seen by all as the top dog. Would this have entered Johnny Sexton’s thinking? Probably. There has been radio silence since the PR disaster that was the announcement of new player succession rules, but assuming they’re still going ahead, how confident could Sexton be that Leinster would be able to recruit the top-class second row they need to be competitive at the sharp end next season? The IRFU’s determination to ensure the national team is not usurped in the fans’ minds as Numero Uno could end up hurting themselves as much as anyone.
5. The door is open for others
We can’t know yet if Sexton’s departure will be the first of many, but certainly it opens the door. Cian Healy and Rob Kearney have not yet signed up for next season. Kearney has been on regional airwaves describing his shock at the news. Sexton’s move will no doubt lead those players to consider just how much a force Leinster can be without their great fly-half. Compounding this, French clubs may now become encouraged. The Irish provinces have yielded slim pickings over the years, with Clermont and Toulouse apparently coveting Sexton, but wary of being used as bargaining tools. Such powerhouses will surely have found their interest piqued by this week’s transfer news. The aforementioned players are of course from Leinster, where there appeared to be genuine shock at how Luke Fitzgerald was cut from the payroll when injured – careers are short and Pandora’s Box is open.
One man we are genuinely concerned about is Sean O’Brien – amazing as it seems, one of our most important players is not currently on a central contract. His current Leinster deal ends next season, so one can expect the union to start discussions in December – if you were a French club, wouldn’t you make discrete contact in advance? O’Brien has many reasons to stay in Leinster, but you can bet that grá for the Union who haven’t made him an offer he can’t refuse is not one of them – they had betterget this one right.
6. Madigan deserves his chance
There’s already speculation that Leinster will scour the southern hemisphere for a fly-half, but this would be a bad move. The one positive that comes out of this is the solving of the Madigan Riddle, also known as What Do You Do With a Problem Like Madeegan. While Madigan still has a way to go to get to Sexton’s consummate level, at the very least his impressive performances in blue over the last two years have earned him the right to at least a season as first choice 10. At his best he’s a thrilling talent with an eye for the tryline, a breaking threat and a sublime pass, and could prove himself to be the second-best 10 in the country if he can improve his decision-making and kicking from hand. A Shaun Berne-type signing as back-up seems more appropriate, and it’s a pity that Paul Warwick has just been snapped up by Worcester; he would have been ideal. Now that George Ford is taking his promising talents to Oooooooooooooohh Bath, perhaps a move for Beaver is in order?
7. Sexton should see out the season
There’s a worthwhile argument that Leinster’s future must start today with as much invested in Madigan from now, including any Pro12 or Amlin knock-out games. But Sexton has earned the right not to be treated as a shop-bought commodity and should remain Leinster’s first-choice 10 for the remainder of his contract. Plus, respect must be paid to the remaining competitions in which Leinster will compete, which means giving themselves the best possible chance of winning them with the best team on the pitch. Besides, with the Six Nations starting, Madigan will be afforded plenty of Pro12 starts over the coming months in any case.
8. Leinster must be positive and move on
It’s devastating for the fans and certainly a blow to the team to lose so great a player. But wallowing in disappointment will achieve little. Leinster’s squad can take comfort by recalling that their recent success was born out of adversity, and their hardness won through difficult times. They have overcome worse than losing a key player before. Furthermore, minds should be cast back to the summer of 2009, when a seemingly irreplacable Aussie backrow made his way back down under. It seemed like the end of the world, but his loss was barely noticed following the emergence of a certain Tullow native with a penchant for smashing holes all over the pitch.
With this in mind, Proper Church’s tweets of Madigan with the meme ‘Relax. I’ve got this’ were a good start.
9. Bon Chance, Johnnny Sexton
Leinster fans in particular will be disappointed, hurt even, by the decision. Some will call Sexton a mercenary and that he’s moved for the money. But really, unless any of those people are Johnny Sexton, or Fintan Drury, or Johnny Sexton’s fiance, it’s impossible to know exactly what his motives are for leaving. Many players have flirted with France before, most notably Brian O’Driscoll. But none have been in Sexton’s position, where he has won three Heineken Cup medals with his hometown team. BO’D stayed at Leinster out of a feeling of unfinished business. Sexton may feel it’s as good a time as any for a fresh challenge. To him, we say, bon chance.