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Sexton move the latest success in IRFU's battle against French wealth

The return of the Ireland out-half follows up on last season’s new deals for Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Sexton will hope to lead Leinster to more European titles.
Sexton will hope to lead Leinster to more European titles.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE IRFU HAVE followed up last season’s retention of star men Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip with the re-signing of Ireland out-half Jonny Sexton, another strike against the wealth of the French clubs.

The initial departure of Sexton to Racing Métro in 2013 was seen as potentially being the starting point in a series of high-profile transfers from Irish shores to the Top 14, but the IRFU deserve credit for their management of the threat.

While rich owners such as Jacky Lorenzetti and Mourad Boudjellal will not disappear any time soon, Ireland’s governing body has demonstrated that they have their own decisive cards to play in the battle to retain players.

O’Brien signed a new two-year contract last season, despite intense interest from Toulon, while Heaslip penned a three-year deal to end speculation linking him to Montpellier, among other clubs.

Now Sexton’s decision to turn down Racing’s lucrative four-year offer to stay on in Paris – Toulon were also believed to be hovering – has underlined the strong work of CEO Philip Browne, national team head coach Joe Schmidt and many others.

Sexton has highlighted family issues as one of the major reasons for his return to Ireland next season, but on the rugby side of things, the move offers him a chance to ensure his welfare is given priority.

Sean O'Brien O'Brien's retention was another big win for the IRFU. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

For all the money on offer in France, the excitement of a move into the narrative-drenched Top 14 and the chance to prove oneself elsewhere, many of the set-ups in France simply cannot match up to what the IRFU offers international players.

Management of physical workloads, superb strength and conditioning programmes, intelligent recovery protocols and world-class coaching from the likes of Schmidt put many French clubs to shame.

The IRFU were criticised for allowing Sexton to leave in the first place, with the player himself having been disappointed with the organisation’s refusal to match his asking price, and lessons will certainly have been learned in that regard.

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If other players do leave Ireland – Rob Kearney’s contract must be next on the list for the IRFU – they may have different personal and rugby experiences to Sexton, perhaps opting to remain abroad for longer-term periods.

That said, a return to Irish shores after just two seasons could suggest to others that their careers are better served by remaining at home and pushing their provinces to success.

In the mean time, Leinster’s current out-halves Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth must be pondering their futures in blue. The latter’s contract expires at the end of the season and the Kiwi may consider himself better served by seeking a new club.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton is key to Ireland's hopes at the 2015 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Madigan would have hoped to establish himself as clear first-choice number 10 when Sexton departed, but that hasn’t happened under Matt O’Connor for a variety of reasons. Will the 25-year-old be content to rotate in and out of the 10 slot for another three seasons or more?

Another potentially difficult situation is that of Sexton in Racing for the remainder of the current campaign. The Irishman is sidelined at present with a fractured jaw, although the club are enthused by the impact of Johan Goosen, who will step in at out-half in the coming weeks.

Such an early public announcement of Sexton’s departure may prove awkward, although the 29-year-old’s commitment is never in doubt and his teammates – many of whom have made high-profile transfers themselves – should understand the circumstances.

This is a wholly positive announcement for Irish rugby, however, and Leinster must be thrilled with the IRFU’s work. Matt O’Connor will be welcoming a world-class player into his squad, as well as one who will contribute to and demand a winning environment.

For Schmidt and Ireland, more control and more face time should mean stronger performances from Sexton in green.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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