The IRFU have made a number of smart, educated decisions since the dawn of professional rugby in 1995 and while Irish Rugby has done extremely well to succeed in this time, the bubble may be about to burst.
The Union’s shrewd decision making and acute foresight has brought Irish rugby a lot of success over the past few decades, in both club and international rugby, but the IRFU’s luck may be about to run out.
The soaring wealth of the Top 14 and the Aviva Premiership means that Irish Rugby is now in a position where it may no longer be able to compete with the riches of English and French club rugby.
The Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), the national professional rugby union league system of France, agreed a €388 million (£325m) four-year contract with French broadcaster Canal+ back in May. French clubs will now split a pool of €97 million per season while the Pro12’s TV coverage generates about €13 million (£11m) per season. Meanwhile the Premiership’s six-year arrangement with BT Sport is believed to be worth around €45 million (£38m) per season and will carry through until 2021.
The respective broadcast deals have created an unequal playing field across Europe in which Pro 12 teams will struggle to compete financially. Last season’s Champions Cup reflected this disparity as the competition was dominated by English and French clubs and it’s no coincidence. The 2016 quarter-finals saw five English and three French clubs occupy the eight quarter final spots, and with the LNR signing their new TV deal after the conclusion of this year’s competition, the gap is only going to widen.
The IRFU know this, and have realised that the financial inequality of European club rugby will force the Union to take a different approach if they are to maximise the longevity of Irish Rugby.
“What is clear is that if we are to increase our competitiveness in the professional and international arenas we need to quickly embrace new ways of doing things,”
said IRFU President Martin O’Sullivan in the IRFU’s 2015/16 Annual Report.
“We cannot hope to compete with the major Nations in terms of scale or finance so it is vital that we maximize our potential in all aspects of planning and preparation.”
IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne expanded on O’Sullivan’s remarks claiming
“All is change in the European rugby environment with the growing dominance of those clubs in France and England with deep financial pockets.
“The size and quality of the playing squads that these clubs can assemble from around the world has changed the balance of power in Europe to the detriment of our Provinces/IRFU who simply cannot match the playing budgets of these teams.
“There is no question that the Provinces should continue to aspire to European success but expectations may need to be tempered in the new financial reality that has emerged, driven by the huge television rights fees generated in the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 tournaments, along with the increasing levels of private investment in professional clubs in those leagues.
“The attendant risks to the Irish professional game are potentially profound and one of the key mitigation strategies is to invest in our pathway to develop better quality players more quickly through a more effective pathway – a key element of the new High Performance strategy.”
To counteract the increasing wealth of French and English clubs the IRFU decided to increase their funding in their elite player development pathway by investing a further €1.2 million into growing the domestic game.
What the IRFU has done is smart, but they’ve also taken the initial steps in raising the white flag. Investing in player development is great, and should always be encouraged, but it’s also an acceptance of inevitability.
The IRFU know what’s about to come to them and they’ve accepted their fate. By increasing investment in development, along with an acknowledgement that they can no longer compete financially, the Union is predicting that the Marty Moore’s and the Ian Madigan’s could very well be the Peter O’Mahony’s and the Iain Henderson’s in the near future.
The Union has had to greatly reduce the number of central contracts they award to Irish players over the years with only 14 players in Ireland currently on IRFU central contracts – a far cry from the 2000’s where the IRFU would routinely have upwards of 20 players on IRFU deals.
These contracts allow the Union tremendous flexibility in monitoring and resting players at certain points during the season, but they also allow the IRFU to intervene in the free market and help the provinces compete financially.
The strategy has worked wonders for Irish Rugby in years gone by, but players like Iain Henderson, Jack McGrath, Paddy Jackson, CJ Stander and Simon Zebo, all of whom are on provincial contracts, could become easy targets for English and French clubs over the next few years.
Consequently, the IRFU will have to be extremely careful in who they award central contracts to. The Union may have had the luxury in the past to give Cian Healy and Sean O’Brein central contracts, but they may no longer be able to be so cavalier with players who have such an extensive history with injury as they run the risk of losing players who are exceeding the terms of their provincial contracts.
Even for those players on central contracts, the IRFU may be able to keep Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip, but will they be able to keep Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony if French clubs decide to double their salary?
Irish Rugby is inevitably going to lose more players to French and English club rugby over the next few years, it just depends to what extent and which players decide to go.
The beauty of Irish Rugby, compared to sports like football, is that you can watch the best Irish players on a weekly basis playing in Ireland.
If the financial disparity between the three European leagues progresses to a point where you can no longer watch the best Irish players play for their province, well then you’re flirting with League Of Ireland status, where although the sport itself may be popular, the product on the field is not attractive enough to sustain public interest and attracts crowds and viewers.
Munster Rugby last season was a testament to how detrimental poor on-field performances can be to a province.
Munster’s poor form on the field saw a sharp decrease in attendances and a lack of knockout European Rugby only exasperated their financial decline.
If the provinces are forced to become over-dependent on the academies to make up numbers on the field, and the best Irish players are playing in England and France, well then we could begin to see a ‘Premier League syndrome’ develop where fans become more interested in the results of foreign clubs than their provinces.
Irish Rugby will always have it’s dedicated followers and those who will attend games undeterred by whose on the field, but if Irish teams begin to be consistently outclassed in Europe, the game will inevitably suffer as a result.
Irish provinces can barely get on RTE or mainstream television stations as it is, with a full complement of internationals no less, what will happen to rugby coverage if the country’s most identifiable players start to play elsewhere?
The Irish national team will continue to remain strong as the talent is still there, but we might not see the same representation from the provinces that we’ve grown accustomed to.
This is a new era of professionalism for Irish Rugby and while the provinces will make no excuses for dips in performance, realistically, we may have to lower our expectations, particularly when it comes to competing in Europe and retaining premium talent.