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Sexton exit need not be a sign of things to come

By Niall Crozier

The shudder that went through Ireland when it was announced that the IRFU had been unable to match the fortune – believed to be £625,000 a year – on offer to Jonny Sexton was massive. About 10 on the rugby Richter Scale.

In and of itself that January 25 shockwave was serious enough. The real fear, though, was of a coming tsunami.

What if, as seemed inevitable, others were to be offered similarly lucrative deals? Would the IRFU be willing – or able – to stand against the big blue wave from France which threatened to suck Irish players from their native land and carry them off across the sea?

Leinster, Ireland and Lions full-back Rob Kearney spoke forthrightly and honestly in warning of the danger that Sexton could be the first of a number.

"In Ireland we've probably been lucky over the years in that it's only now that a player has left. It will test the waters obviously. It could go very badly for him, it's impossible to say," Kearney suggested.

"Guys always talk about leaving and threatening to look for new experiences. France is one of the new experiences that players will generally pin-point in looking for a change.

"Jonny's shown a lot of bravery. If it works out really well for him in that he's enjoying life and playing good rugby while earning more money, people will see that and it will open up a whole new ball park."

There were some who felt those words amounted to a threat – a 'pay up or risk the consequences' ultimatum to the Irish game's administrators.

That's a cynical viewpoint. Kearney's opinion was the same as that of most others, namely that the lure of wages far in excess of anything available here was going to be very difficult for players to resist.

The only difference was that unlike those punters, Kearney is an employee of the IRFU. Vested interest or a man telling it like it is? You decide.

But his status does not mean he should be denied an opinion on a subject of massive importance. Nor does it affect, alter or amend truth which remains true no matter who utters the word. In warning of a possible exodus, with Sexton in the role of a latter-day Moses leading others to a land flowing with wine and money rather than milk and honey, Kearney was simply stating the obvious.

The threat came – and continues to come – not from Kearney, but from France. In the light of that reality it was up to the IRFU – the Irish international players' bosses and pay-masters – to react positively.

To their credit, they have. In the days since news broke of Sexton's departure at the end of this season, the Irish game's overlords have agreed contract extensions with Munster's Peter O'Mahony and Leinster trio Cian Healy, Mike Ross and now Kearney himself.

No harm to the others, but Kearney's signature is the most telling. As a Lion and last season's European Player of the Year, he could have commanded by far the biggest salary from French suitors for any of that quartet's services.

The reaction of the Irish Union's chief executive Philip Browne to Kearney's signature was telling.

"We are delighted that a player of Rob's calibre will be remaining within the structures of Irish rugby and it is an indication of the efforts that we are making to keep as many of our players at home for the benefit of the provinces and Irish rugby as a whole," he said.

Expressing his delight at staying with what he called 'my home' (Leinster), Kearney's response was: "I have been very lucky to have experienced success with that same group over the last number of years and with the great support we have, it made it a very easy decision."

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt highlighted the player's pedigree, saying: "It's great that he'll be continuing with Leinster in the years to come."

Irish rugby is in a better place now than had been feared might be the case two weeks ago. For that we should be grateful to the IRFU – and the players – for being realistic.

Belfast Telegraph


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