Leinster and sponsors most likely crucial to Sexton deal
Outhalf’s 2015 return to Leinster probably signals departure of Jimmy Gopperth
Jonathan Sexton reacts during Racing Metro’s French Top 14 match against Union Bordeaux-Begles (UBB)at Chaban Delmas Stadium in Bordeaux at the weekend. Photograph: Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images
Additional financial support, most probably from Leinster and sponsors, helped bridge some if not all of the sizeable gap between the lucrative four-year deal which Racing Metro offered Johnny Sexton last week, and the four-year contract which he has accepted from the IRFU to return home and play with Leinster from next season.
On foot of joining the Parisian club last season for a deal reputedly worth over €650,000 per year to him, owner Jacky Lorenzetti had clearly intended building the Racing Metro team around the Ireland and Lions outhalf.
Bearing in mind the bonuses that would have been built into that deal Lorenzetti’s offer would have far outstripped the best deal the IRFU could have put on the table.
Heretofore, the provinces were not permitted to supplement international contracts from the IRFU, a contributory factor in Leinster losing Sexton to Racing Metro in the first place. The Union feared a precedent being set whereby players on international contracts would seek supplementary earnings from their provinces.
However, as they were also losing Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen to retirement in a 12-month period, and they had to sign Jimmy Gopperth, presumably for €200,000-€250,000 per year, Leinster argued they could ill-afford to lose Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien as well last season when French giants like Toulon, came calling.
Hence it is understood the union granted Leinster dispensation to supplement O’Brien’s and Heaslip’s international contracts to keep them with the province. O’Brien came within 24 hours of joining Toulon.
Whether this was facilitated by private backing has been debated within the game. In any event, it is highly probable Sexton’s contract will have been swelled by a revival of his ambassadorial role with 02, who have since been taken over by 3 Mobile, the IRFU’s main sponsors.
There would have been personal as well as rugby reasons for Sexton’s decision to rejoin Leinster. His wife Laura would most probably have been a major factor in his decision to come home, not least after giving birth to their first child, Luca, at the end of June, and their ensuing desire to be near their extended families.
Sexton had recently spoken of the difficulties in raising a child in Paris away from their respective families,
It was clear too he became weary of the extra playing demands on him under the French club system, affording him scarcely three weeks’ holidays after his Lions exertions in the summer of 2013, and then obliging him to play 25 matches for racing last season.
This possibly contributed to him missing Ireland’s international against Samoa last November and forcing him off at half-time against Australia a week later, as well as him being unable to see out the end games against New Zealand and France, among others.
Indeed, unusually for Sexton, he finished 80 minutes only once in nine starts for Ireland last season.
For these reasons, while Sexton has taken a pay cut to return home, he is reportedly delighted with the outcome, albeit the benefits to him and the Irish team will be felt more in the longer than shorter term.
Ostensibly his new Irish deal will have no impact on his availability or readiness for the 2015 World Cup or any of Ireland’s November Tests, Six Nations campaign or warm-up matches in between. For those intervening commitments, he will still be with Racing Metro, and given his decision to turn down their four-year contract it’s doubtful the Parisians will be additionally keen to foster a good working relationship with the Irish set-up or go easy on their prized outhalf; even if they would have seen the errors in over-playing him last season.
Last Saturday, perhaps with all this weighing on his mind, Sexton missed two penalties and a conversion as a late intercept try helped Bordeaux to a 30-21 home win over Racing at Stade Chaban Delmas.
Come the start of the 2014-15 season and Sexton would have been available to Ireland for their warm-up games and build-up to the 2015 World Cup under IRB Regulation 9, regardless of whether he was still with Racing Metro.
Nevertheless, had he remained in Paris and been obliged to continue the kind of workload he experienced last season for another four years, it would most probably have continued to exert a toll on Sexton’s body and impacted on his fitness and form for Ireland.
Instead, at 29 and having come to the frontline of his profession in his mid-20s, not only does this four-year deal (unprecedented for longevity by IRFU standards) offer him security but increases the chances of him maximising the length of his career.
The one loser may well be the aforementioned Gopperth, whose two-year deal with Leinster expires at the end of this season, and with Sexton set to come home to his native province Gopperth will most likely move on.
By contrast, Ian Madigan signed a three-year deal with Leinster 12 months ago, and it therefore seems highly improbable the province would offer Gopperth a new contract.
Otherwise though, all in all this has to be a good move for Sexton himself, his family, Leinster and Irish rugby.