Sexton agreement with Denis O’Brien confirms IRFU’s strategy

IRFU pursue policy of seeking private funding to keep players in Ireland

Jonathan Sexton's commercial agreement with Denis O'Brien, which played a significant role in bringing the Ireland outhalf back to Leinster next season, confirms the new IRFU strategy of keeping hold of their most precious commodities.

Basically, the provinces can now top up central contracts with private funding.

The first deal of this kind was brokered last January by Jamie Heaslip’s agent, Damien O’Donohoe of Ikon.This was allowed to avoid the loss of another marquee Irish player following Sexton signing for Racing Metro 92.

Heaslip was able to spurn the advances of Toulon while maintaining his status as the highest-paid player in Irish rugby when Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson arranged for him to become a Bank of Ireland brand ambassador.


This saw Heaslip sell his image rights to secure a contract believed to be worth close to €600,000, presuming the number eight plays a certain number of games each season and achieves other targets, aligned to team success.

Approximately 10 per cent of Heaslip’s salary is funded by Leinster’s main sponsor.

Dealing with the IRFU

It is also believed Toulon and Racing Metro 92 were offering in the region of €900,000 to keep Sexton in France. But the Dubliner, citing his young family as a main reason, insisted on negotiating directly with union chief executive

Philip Browne

. Sexton’s agent, Fintan Drury, was the go-between with Racing Metro last year.

Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora, the union's newly-appointed performance director, also played significant roles in luring Sexton home. Nucifora sat with Sexton, his wife Laura and son Luca at last month's historic defeat of New Zealand in the woman's Rugby World Cup at Marcoussis.

Maurice Dowling, the IRFU's director of human resources last season, was previously the first point of contact on contract negotiations. This is now part of Nucifora's remit.

Umbrella company

The Sexton deal, as reported by the

Sunday Times

, may open an association with Communicorp or another company under the O’Brien umbrella, which could see Sexton make a number of guest appearances on their radio shows or perhaps a newspaper column. Sexton recently provided Newstalk with an exclusive interview on his reasons for returning home.

When contacted yesterday, a spokesman for the billionaire refused to provide The Irish Times with any comment.

Sexton’s position as brand ambassador would also see him in the same salary bracket as Heaslip, although he also has a lucrative agreement with Adidas. Heaslip is also a brand ambassador for Guinness.

Asked recently about the IRFU seeking private funding to keep players in Ireland, Browne said: “Some of the provinces have been quite successful at generating private money. For instance Leinster have been successful in getting their training facilities in UCD funded by private money.

“I think at Munster and Ulster there’s private money involved in terms of the supporters clubs, which are being used to fund the academy developments, certainly in Munster. I think we are looking all the time at seeing how we can renew our business model, how can we not stand still basically. We have to keep moving forwards.”

Regarding the union competing with the wealthier French clubs, Browne said: “Well, we have to look at our business model number one. Is it possible to bring in private money or generate other sources? We are working with the provinces looking at all the options open to us.”

Interestingly, Seán O’Brien and Paul O’Connell re-signed IRFU contracts last season without additional funding from their provinces or private money. This is probably because of O’Brien’s injury profile and O’Connell’s age.

Sexton, now 29, currently has no such concerns as he joins the list of Giovanni Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, all of whom have or had their salaries buttressed by O’Brien.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent