IRFU must now deal with a changed mindset as French crack the Irish code

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

Rob Kearney will be have been keeping a close eye on events as his contract comes to an end, writes JOHNNY WATTERSON

The IRFU statement was factual. It couldn’t match the French offer and was disappointed Jonathan Sexton was leaving. Yesterday it was standard, polite, matter-of-fact language as the roof came crashing down.

A Top 14 side cracked the IRFU defences of tax breaks, player management systems and the loyalty factor, the natural pull of Leinster and the hometown connections which has always coloured players’ thinking when courted by outside clubs.

What the IRFU have to deal with now, most crucially, is a changed mindset, the challenge of viable options other than them for both their international players in the moneyed clubs in France.

Brian O’Driscoll didn’t bite, Sexton has and Lansdowne Road as well as the cash-rich French clubs will now see the most valued Irish players as attainable targets. Sexton has broken the deterrent. It cannot be reversed.

Rob Kearney will bear that in mind as his contract is up at the end of the season and he’s probably in the middle of negotiations right now. Kearney had issues with the IRFU before he signed his last contract.

Phone calls to this paper from people close to him, and who knew just how fraught that process was, framed the IRFU as a governing body playing hard ball with a vulnerable player struggling with injury.

Kearney, who is 27 in March, is fit again and soaring. You’d imagine the signing of the biggest contract of his career will be addressed in a different tone. If there is a winner here it could be the Ireland fullback.

Weakness in system

Through Sexton, who interestingly is chairman of Irupa, the Irish professional rugby players union, the French found a weakness in the system, not just because Ireland’s toxic economy meant the IRFU’s hand was weaker but also because of his age and his relatively late arrival to a big contract.

His first international match was against Fiji in November 2009, where he kicked seven out of seven in windy conditions. At that time he would have been in a contract worth no more than €100,000 p.a.

His most recent agreement signed in 2011 was when he began to make money commensurate with his talent, perhaps €300,000-€350,000. In the recent negotiations the IRFU were purportedly offering no more than €500,000, or €250,000 a year less a year than the Parisian club reportedly offered.

In effect Sexton has had only two years of big money, which given his age, makes Ireland’s favourable tax rebate initiative less effective for him. Athletes get back 40 per cent of their tax for 10 years if they remain in Ireland, which on average is one and a half year’s salary.

Complex matrix

In France the taxing system is based on a complex matrix where individuals fill in a grid with age, status, income and other factors considered. The bottom line is they enjoy more favourable rates. Sexton will be taxed as a married man after his wedding in July.

French-based players can also take advantage of looser regulations regarding earnings from image rights, which they cannot do in Ireland. In short as Irish taxes increase, France has allowed clubs to set aside 30 per cent of a player’s income as “image rights” and exempt them from the vast array of social taxes and charges.

The agreement of his pitch time with his new club is a pivotal issue for the outhalf and his canny agent Fintan Drury, of Platinum One, may have included that in the agreement.

Sexton is a level-headed individual with sound judgment. He will have considered next year’s French schedule of matches.

French clubs play 26 league games in the French Championship plus three play-off games, if they get through to that stage.

Assuming he plays in either the Heineken Cup or Amlin Challenge Cup, that would involve a minimum of six pool games and possibly three play-off phases if they make the final.

Sexton would then play in at least two of the three November Tests for Ireland and in five of the 2014 Six Nations Championship games. That adds up to a season with a potential 42 games.

In the 2011-12 season Sexton lined out 16 times for Leinster and 16 times for Ireland in an unusual year. It included a 2011 World Cup and Test matches in New Zealand last summer. Normally his numbers for played matches in a regular season would be in the mid-20s.

In Wales many players have beaten a path south and it has been hugely problematic. Warren Gatland even travelled to France to see if he could ease his access to Welsh internationals.

Specified windows

While the IRB have specified windows whereby the international players are released, most national teams, including Ireland, organise training sessions outside of that.

Unless Sexton has contracted for that it will be an issue as it has been for Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins, James Hook, Luke Charteris and Paul James.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt, having been with Clermont for several seasons, is steeped in realism but must be hurting. It’s likely Leinster will now have to recruit a world class outhalf because their European pedigree requires it.

Loosehead prop Cian Healy yesterday posted a picture of Ian Madigan, who has stood in at 10 for Leinster many times. It was a photograph of Madigan’s face bearing the words “Chill out, I’ve got it”.

The club may well need some chill in a week they lost Fionn Carr, Andrew Conway and Jonathan Sexton.

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