Putting ‘the cart before the horse’ is a fairly apt description of the current state of provincial rugby in Ireland. While the national team has achieved tremendous success over the past few years, Ireland’s provinces have struggled and the gap between Irish clubs and Europe’s elite is only widening.
The current European broadcasting deals see the Pro 12 earn a combined €14 million for match coverage, while the Premiership and Top 14 both earn €51 and €97 million respectively in similar agreements.
The financial disparity between the leagues has made it increasingly difficult for clubs in the Pro 12 to compete, and it’s left Irish provinces in a position where they may no longer be able to attract players like Brad Thorn, Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Doug Howlett or Charles Piutau.
Furthermore, as a consequence of the financial inequality, the provinces may also struggle to keep Irish internationals in Ireland, an issue that the IRFU has done tremendously well to circumvent over the last decade. However, they may now be at risk of losing control of the situation.
“The provinces simply can’t go out into the global market place and expect to pick up world-class players with the budget that they have,” stated IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne at Friday’s IRFU AGM at the Aviva Stadium [h/t – The Irish Times].
“They have got to live within their budgets, which is why it is better value for us to invest in the pathway. To produce our own players. We simply can’t compete with what is happening in France.”
IRFU honorary treasurer Tom Grace added: “The union’s response to this is to increase the player funding going forward for the provinces but more significantly to invest greater amounts into our player development pathways from the grassroots game upwards. In our budget for 2015/16 an additional €3.2 million was allocated to elite-player development and €800,000 to the domestic game. For 2016/17 we have enhanced the domestic game investment by a further €1.2 million.”
The IRFU’s plan makes sense. Invest in the youth pathways to ensure that the union can produce players that can step in and replace front line players who may decide to play their club rugby overseas. Logical and smart.
But it’s Browne’s thoughts on Pro 12 expansion that are worrying.
“The east coast of the US, why not?” The CEO said of potential Pro 12 expansion. “The one thing we can bring to bear, as four unions, is if you operate a franchise model we can provide the coaches, we can provide the administrative expertise. We can do what is needed to get a franchise up and running pretty quickly.”
The administrative expertise? The coaches?
The IRFU have had to bail out Ulster, Munster and Connacht in the past and were close to disbanding the latter in 2003. If it wasn’t for the brilliance of Pat Lam, Connacht might still be Irish Rugby’s distant cousin, the family member at the bottom of the table who sits on the outside looking in.
If Munster, one of Irish rugby’s traditional strongholds, are being bailed out by the IRFU, then how much certainty can there be that a US franchise won’t suffer the same fate in a much smaller rugby market with much bigger travel commitments?
Yes, technically, there is tremendous potential for growth in America but with what players? The All Blacks and Wallabies may pack out Chicago’s Soldier Field on their end of year tours but how many of those players are going to come play in the Pro 12? For an unproven American team no less?
As for the coaches? Leinster and Munster have both had to bring in Rugby Directors to help their young coaches adjust to life in professional management, while Pat Lam has spent the majority of his coaching career in Super Rugby. Ulster boss Les Kiss is a former Australian Rugby League international who cut his teeth in coaching with the Springboks and the NSW Waratahs, while Conor O’Shea, one of our most successful rugby minds, is contracted with the Italian national team until 2020.
The IRFU may be able to provide lesser known coaches but would it really be beneficial to have our unproven talent go and coach a US team when they can’t get jobs here? Maybe they’d benefit from the exposure, but would a coach like Nigel Carolan not benefit more from sticking with the Ireland U20s until a provincial job opens up? It’s hard to say, but whatever coach would be willing to make that leap is taking an incredible gamble with their career.
Furthermore, why is the IRFU looking to expand the Pro 12 when one of their strongest provinces is floundering?
Munster owe €9 million to the IRFU for the redevelopment of Thomond Park and made no repayment to the union during the last financial year. A €200,000 payment was due last April, with €4.2 million due in April 2017 and €500,000 to be paid every year until 2026 with a final lump sum of €761,778 expected in 2027.
Browne indicated that he does not envisage the province being able to pay the €4.2 million payment due in April 2017, nor the €500,000 annual payments through to 2026.
He also dismissed claims that Munster’s financial difficulties were due to poor management and instead attributed their substandard economic performance to scheduling conflicts and travel limitations.
“I don’t think it is a case of them running their business very badly,” added the CEO. “There is a serious problem but the reason why there was a cash flow [issue] this year was due to a number of reasons.
“The first was they had to run the Pro 12 up against the Rugby World Cup. That had an impact on their gates. Secondly, because of the broadcast nature of the Pro 12, where you have multiple broadcasters, Munster ended up with a number of matches where they played on a Friday night, which just doesn’t work for Limerick because people in Cork can’t get there. So, that had an impact.
“The third part of it was the performance of the team. Effectively, by December, they ended up in a situation where their two home matches in Europe were effectively dead rubbers so their gates just fell away.
“The gates only picked up towards the end of the season when they were fighting for (Champions Cup) survival.”
To a certain extent Browne is right. The absence of Irish internationals during the Rugby World Cup didn’t help Munster’s finances and Friday night games can make it hard for fans to travel to Limerick. As for their performances on the field, which Browne interestingly listed as the third contributing factor, they were well below the expected standard.
However, Munster were also poorly managed, there’s no getting around that. Browne is probably not the man to admit it though, as you don’t usually see CEOs publicly critcising lower management. That’s only natural.
What’s not natural was giving Anthony Foley a one-year contract extension after the former Ireland number eight coached the first Munster team in history to three successive defeats in Europe. Failing to make any contact with Conor O’Shea, a Limerick native and former teammate of CEO Garrett Fitzgerald and Foley, could also be viewed as poor management.
What about a misfiring academy? Munster had just 10 out of a possible 56 players in the most recent Ireland U18 and U20 squads. The province possessed just over 17% of the two playing squads while Ulster and Leinster accounted for a combined 61% of both squads.
The province has been bailed out by the IRFU, has made no further repayments on their €9 million debt, has seen attendances decrease, had no knockout European rugby in two years, and has won no trophy in five years.
The IRFU are taking the right steps in ensuring that the future of Irish Ruby remains bright by increasing funding in player development; but, with regards to Pro 12 expansion, you can’t start renovations on your house when one of your main pipes is burst.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena