IRFU chief tackles Ryan over 'cracked' TV plan
Claims free-to-air rugby will cost it €12m in lost income
RUGBY chiefs yesterday unleashed a blistering attack on the "absolutely cracked" plan of Communications Minister Eamon Ryan to make rugby matches free on Irish television channels.
They have warned that his plans could now "destabilise European rugby".
The two sides are now at loggerheads over government proposals to make all Irish games in the Six Nations and Heineken Cup free of charge on regular Irish television channels.
But the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the Six Nations and the European Rugby Cup last night slammed Mr Ryan's plans, with the IRFU accusing him of operating on a "hunch" and pursuing an "absolutely cracked" plan that would cause financial turmoil.
Taking the matches off channels such as Sky Sports and making them free to air on RTE or TV3 will cost the IRFU €12m -- amounting to 18pc of its annual income, it is claimed.
The IRFU says the proposed changes will devastate the professional sport, which is funded by a mix of international and domestic revenue streams.
The union's chief Philip Browne said the country's best players would move abroad, where higher wages are on offer, if the proposed changes were implemented.
"It is absolutely cracked," Mr Browne said. "There is nothing broken. There is nothing that needs fixing."
Last month, the Irish Independent revealed that Mr Ryan had obtained cabinet approval to add the Heineken Cup qualifiers, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final to the free-to-air list when an Irish team is participating.
Up until now, rugby fans had to rely on costly sports television packages or delayed coverage to watch Heineken Cup matches.
Fans have been able to watch recent Six Nations matches on regular television after RTE won the rights until 2013 -- but the Government is anxious to get those matches on to the free-to-air list before the broadcasting contract expires.
As a non-profit organisation, the IRFU said it does not have the cash reserves to replace the €12m fall in income.
Business and investment plans for the newly opened Aviva Stadium, Thomond Park and other stadiums would be seriously undermined, Mr Browne said.
"It has the potential to destabilise European rugby. That is the unintended consequence of (Mr Ryan's) well-meaning policy," he added.
"It will take a generation or more to turn it around if he's wrong. (He is) gambling with the future of Irish rugby.
"Does he want that on his head? That he personally brought down Irish rugby on the back of a hunch?"
Mr Browne called on the minister to spell out how the €12m shortfall could be filled, claiming it was "nonsense" to suggest sponsorship could fill the gap.
Hitting back last night, Mr Ryan claimed increased viewership would increase sponsorship and marketing. Expanding the fan base would improve the revenue base, he said.
When Munster was in the Heineken Cup final in 2006, it drew 500,000 viewers on Irish free-to-air channels. In 2008, the audience plummeted to 100,000 for a similar match when it was aired on pay-per-view television.
Last night, the minister insisted it was vital to protect the Six Nations matches, which were not on the Government's free-to-air list.
"Unless we actually protect it now, there's a risk that we could lose it," Mr Ryan said.
HUGH FARRELLY: YOU ARE WRONG, MINISTER p24 THE SQUAD IN DETAIL: SPORT