Head to Head: Can the IRFU keep the best Irish players in Ireland?

In light of Johnny Sexton’s refusal to sign a new contract with Leinster, Shane Hannon and Killian Woods debate whether or not the IRFU can compete with the superior finances of the French gameThe IRFU can't compete with French rugbyBy Killian Woods“The IRFU is fully committed, together with the provinces, to maintaining its programme of nurturing and retaining Irish rugby talent” was the closing sentence of the statement drafted by the IRFU's chief executive, Philip Browne, in reaction to Jonathan Sexton’s decision not to sign the contract offer that was tabled to keep the Leinster out-half in Ireland.Overall, the IRFU’s reaction thus far has been typical of an organisation whose modus operandi is to preserve the state of Irish rugby and ensure its continued advancement. It is a textbook response of a chief executive that needs to be observed as striving to retain the key assets of the organisation; namely, Jonathan Sexton.Browne’s statement admitted that they could not match the financial incentives of other parties vying for Sexton’s signature, but he managed to convey that they were still in the fight right until the end.Sexton’s decision to leave Ireland has raised questions over the clout that the IRFU possess when entering contract negotiations with players these days and whether they have an ability to compete with the financial benefits that French clubs can offer.Competing with French Top 14 clubs for the services of players encompasses a variety of different variables. Leverage in such a situation can be influenced by many variations, of which weighted importance is principally down to the ambitions of the player in question.These variables could simply involve the money on offer, the opportunity to win trophies, or possibly be even as fickle as the desire for more average hours of sunlight in winter.It is unequivocally apparent that the IRFU cannot compete with the wage packages being put forward by the financially loaded clubs such as Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, and notorious Parisian based suitors of Sexton, Racing Metro.In any incident, and especially in this particular case, it must be considered that more is at play than merely the amount of zeros on a payslip. By the time the fixtures for the French Top 14 2013/14 get underway, Sexton will be 28-years-old. Like any adult entering their late twenties, he probably has an ambition to explore.Judging by his approach to professional sport, Sexton is a very competitive person that strives to test himself. Competitiveness in this sense is a characteristic that would transcend his approach to rugby and influence his decisions that would drive him to try a new culture and a new way of life, a better life.A lot of Irish players would benefit from such an ambitious move. Many of the players plying their trade in Ireland are stuck in a comfort zone that could be holding them back from developing into all-round better players.Even if players are chasing a higher income, they should not be begrudged that either. Echoing the sentiments of Matt Williams in The Irish Times, it would be amiss of us as Irish rugby supporters to hiss at or renounce the rights of Sexton, or any player, to seek out the highest pay on offer for their services and, most importantly, deny them the right to develop as people.Sexton is subjectively the best fly-half in Europe at the moment, odds on to be the first choice to wear the Lions number ten jersey this summer, and is entering the prime years of his career. This will most likely be the best contract he will ever be offered, with any contract after this point accounting for a decrease in his capacity to perform at the peak of his abilities.Rugby is a short career that doesn’t offer the option for a player to sit back on their laurels once they hang up their boots. It is a demanding lifestyle and career choice that offers limited financial rewards considering the likelihood those players may suffer from post-traumatic injuries for the rest of their lives due to their exertions in rugby.This is why loyalty is not a factor that warrants recognition in this matter. Sexton, like Brian O’Driscoll in 2005 who flirted with the opportunity to join Biarritz Olympique, owes the Irish rugby fans nothing and has the right to maximise his earning potential while he can.So, with the argument being can the IRFU challenge the increasing prestige of French clubs, the real question that should be posed is, should Irish rugby fight for their players?Ultimately, there is no financial structure in place that is sustainable and suitable to challenge the significant financial rewards being offered in France. Any move to match the extent of their offers would be imprudent and place the union’s fiscal future in jeopardyIn this instance, the IRFU’s actions speak louder than words and prove their dedication to the current wage structure in place. It is still unclear whether the IRFU are facing an exodus or if the headhunt of Sexton is an isolated incident. The out-half is a highly coveted player that warrants a premium price, but will French clubs feel Rob Kearney merits a similar substantial offer?The IRFU were unable to compete with the financial leverage of French clubs for Europe’s finest out-half, but the price in the market for a loosehead prop like Cian Healy, who penned a new three-year deal, would be significantly lower and within the union’s remit.However, this incessant need for “retaining Irish rugby talent” may not be the best way forward. The Sexton experiment will hopefully prove that you can only nurture a player to a certain extent and that to realise their full potential, Irish players need to spread their wings a little. Adieu to Irish Rugby? Au contraire!By Shane Hannon Leinster and Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton recently announced that he will leave Leinster when his current contract expires at the end of the season. This revelation has left many wondering whether rugby in Ireland will now face the greatest challenge in its history: a fight to hold on to its best players. But it is just fear-mongering to say that the floodgates will open, as the IRFU will still be fully capable of holding onto its finest athletes In reality, Irish rugby could never compete financially with clubs in France. Sexton will earn an estimated €1.5million over two years at Top 14 side Racing Metro, figures IRFU chief Phillip Brown has argued are “quite simply, not within our orbit.” The money available to French teams is far more than Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht have at their disposal. Toulouse, for example have an annual budget of over €30million; more than all four Irish provinces combined. Even considering the money he will be earning, Sexton’s decision can’t have been an easy one. Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has said “The offer he has received is exceptional, even by French standards, but I know that it was still a tough decision for him.” In the past, the IRFU have proved successful when it came to holding on to the country’s star players, and that will undoubtedly continue to be the case. Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip have both previously rejected contract offers from French clubs, so it is clear the desire is there for the best of the best to stay where they are, regardless of financial temptations. Irish rugby legend Tony Ward stated in a recent article that “Sexton’s decision to go challenges the entire structure upon which the game here has been based in the professional era.” But, in reality, the Irish model has been the envy of the other Six Nations sides. In recent years, the amount of players from England, Wales and Scotland that have moved on to Top 14 rugby has vastly increased; Wales star and 2009 Lion Jamie Roberts will almost certainly be playing at first-centre outside Sexton at Racing next season. The Irish game has been left relatively unscathed, and Sexton’s move shouldn’t be seen as the beginning of the end. As Ward commented on the Sexton saga, “For Irish rugby it’s inconvenient rather than the end of an era.” Some are worried that if Sexton’s move is a success, more will do likewise and seek more financial reward for the time and effort they put into the sport, but moving to France has other implications which may put many Irish players off the idea. For internationals, travelling long-distance to and from training and Six Nations/Autumn internationals (not to mention the quadrennial World Cup) may be seen as an inconvenience. Then there is of course the language barrier and the effort of settling into a new country with cultures and customs, that is different to home. The lure of money cannot be ignored, and the likes of Sexton shouldn’t be vilified for wanting to leave themselves financially better off for when the time comes to retire from the game. More and more rugby players are studying degrees in their early-twenties, so not all are thinking solely about their pocket. Having the chance to win major honours with your home province is the stuff dreams are made of, as three-time Heineken Cup winner Sexton knows all about. Rugby-wise, moving to France doesn’t make all that much sense. Economically strong points are made to go abroad, but for competitive rugby Ireland is as good as anywhere. The statistics simply do not lie: five of the last seven Heineken Cups have been won by an Irish province, with the 2012 final an all-Irish affair. Rugby in Ireland has arguably never been stronger than it is at the moment. Although Leinster failed to make this year’s Heineken Cup quarterfinals, all great teams are allowed a dip in form. The talent on the pitch is so strong at the minute in Ireland that it is inevitable that French Top 14 and English Premiership sides were going to target them. Six Nations Chief Executive John Feehan said on Newstalk’s Down to Business recently that “ultimately, you’ve got these French clubs with big sugar daddies who can write huge cheques.” But there are other incentives as discussed which make plying your trade in Ireland an attractive option, and Tommy Bowe is an excellent example this. The Monaghan man joined the Ospreys in 2008 and went on to have a very successful spell there. While the lure of rugby abroad obviously led him to Wales, in March of 2012 he confirmed he would be returning to his native Ulster for the 2012/13 season. His importance to the Ulster cause was outlined when he scored two tries on his return against the Cardiff Blues. Bowe is an example of how a player can go abroad and experience rugby elsewhere, and then return to Ireland. Perhaps Sexton’s days of playing for Leinster are not completely over, and that one day he may return to play on his original turf. Newspaper headlines the day after Sexton’s announcement included ‘First trickle to France could turn into a flood’ and ‘Limping Leinster in limbo.’ However, the reality is that, despite not being able to pay the same wages, Irish clubs can and will compete with French clubs in the future. Vive l’Irlande!