Sport Rugby

Tuesday 27 June 2017

'In a business you don't dread anything if you plan properly'

The reaction to Brendan Fanning’s article in January about Munster rugby, the week after they lost in the Heineken Cup to Toulon, was hot and heavy. With a make or break trip to Brive this week in the Amlin Challenge Cup, he talks to chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald about where Munster Rugby is headed

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

BF: Explain where Munster are at now?

GF: We're still ranked the number one team in Europe and have been since they brought in the ranking system. That may change this year because of the Heineken Cup results. We're leading the Magners League and last year we were beaten in the semi-finals of both competitions. So we're in a good position -- as an ambitious group obviously we want to be further ahead.

The B&I Cup has been excellent for us in terms of player development -- it's given an exposure to young players to new opposition in new locations and they need that no matter how much they develop at home. We were beaten in the final last year but I thought we learned more by losing it than winning it. We didn't qualify this year because we lost one of our home games, but overall I think we're in a good position. We'd like to be better.

BF: Had you been dreading for a while a season without knock-out rugby in the Heineken Cup?

GF: No. What we're running at the moment is a business. It's not a voluntary organisation any longer even though that's the nature of it. When you're in a business you don't dread anything if you plan properly or have thought about it and realised that at some stage it's going to happen.

If you asked us when we were at six qualifications if we thought what was going to happen would happen -- I'd say we certainly never dreamt of going on to qualify 12 times consecutively. We would have spoken every year about what would happen if we didn't qualify, the way people would react to it given that the supporter base, as it went on, had taken it as a given. We are a pretty realistic, practical bunch of people who plan accordingly and realised that we didn't have any divine right to it. Any year we qualified we were thrilled with it.

This season certainly we were disappointed but the way it went the team that had won an away game went through and we had no complaints."

BF: Explain the financial imperatives of staying in the Amlin Challenge Cup to the finish?

GF: "From a budgetary point of view Munster haven't ever budgeted for qualifying for any knock-out stages. Our budgets are based on pool games and if we had any touring side coming in. So there's no imperative from the point of view of paying people's wages. The bonuses we would have got from qualifying and moving through the knock-out stages of competition would have been split in two: the prizemoney, which is paid directly to the IRFU; and gate money you get from a quarter-final isn't always as big as people think because of how it's divided and 50 per cent of the share we get from that goes to the IRFU itself.

We've always used that money wisely, be it for player development, or what we do in pre-season. We don't budget for pre-season until we see how we've done in the previous season's tournament. A lot of the money would have been used for improvement in facilities, or working with UL or CIT to see if we can get better facilities for players, or if we can get Academy guys to do a pre-season camp. We have a responsibility to pay a dividend back to the domestic game as well. We've hired extra coach-development officers year on year or used the money when we've qualified to improve that area.

BF: There is a perception -- perhaps outside Munster -- that the organisation got lazy in the good times and are not equipped for a downturn. Is this fair?

GF: I think it's a harsh criticism and it was written in your article a few weeks ago. I accept though that you based that charge on information coming from within Munster.

If you work with Tony McGahan and Paul O'Connell, you certainly don't get lazy because they are two extremely driven men. They have a huge work ethic and demand high standards. We have a very hard-working staff who are focused on achieving what is best for Munster. I think at times, small as the island is, the comparisons that are made are not always fair given the geography and demographics involved. Look at Dublin with a population of one-point-something million. As the game has developed in Ireland, Leinster have done well but their whole academy and development is going to be different given the volume of people they have. We haven't changed anything we've been doing over the years but I think that given the success Leinster have enjoyed over the past number of years, what should have been more obvious then is obvious now, given the numbers.

I certainly don't think anyone has got lazy. We've done a lot of work that people wouldn't have been aware of -- reorganisation within our own organisation going back to when Alan Gaffney was there. Before 2006 we had Saatchi and Saatchi on board through Roger Downer in the University of Limerick and had a strategic plan done at that stage about trying to achieve success.

At European level, we got huge advice about how we should place and strategically seek sponsors with international brands such as adidas and Toyota which have been hugely important for us in developing Munster as a world brand. It's accepted across the board that when we played New Zealand and Australia it was a huge boost to us and Munster is a brand that's known across the world.

Since then we've worked extremely hard with Atlantic Sports Management and people like Morgan Buckley who has done a lot of work for the IRFU and in organising and planning both our domestic and professional game. We're currently doing a new strategic plan with Focus Consulting. We've done a review of our own academy with Gary Keegan of the Irish Institute of Sport. We've done that in conjunction with the IRFU review of the four academies themselves. So we certainly haven't got lazy.

We've made huge efforts to increase our season-ticket base and between the various categories we have 16,000 tickets in operation. We have a Supporters' Club who we work exceptionally closely with and who have three full-time staff in our office and have an adult membership of 11,300 people. That's an awful lot of work going on in the background.

I would hate to think that any organisation that I was involved with, or leading, would be deemed to be lazy. As I said, when you work with Tony McGahan and Paul O'Connell and an awful lot of unbelievably good voluntary people, they don't do lazy. By nature we're not inclined to blow our own trumpet

BF: Leinster are better equipped than Munster to replace their ageing stars. Have you fallen asleep at the wheel on this?

GF: "No we haven't fallen asleep but I think that Leinster should be better equipped to replace their ageing stars given the player base they have. So I think the rate at which we replace them will be a different focus for us than for them.

A large portion of our player base does not come from the schools, which is a big issue with us. We have eight 'Grade A' schools whereas Leinster have maybe 20? The growth in age-grade rugby in Munster is phenomenal and spread right across the province, Kerry and Waterford, Tipperary, Clare -- everywhere. And probably it's been confirmed by the under 17 and under 19 finals last week being won by Waterpark for the second year in a row and that in the Munster Club under 18 side last year, six or less players were from the Cork or Limerick area.

There isn't a political issue with the schools, as you point out. We have a very close working relationship with them and they've been responsible for producing most of our players over the years. Now it has evolved that more people will come through the clubs. The area where it's perceived that there's an issue with the schools is working with the elite players within the schools. I can fully understand the schools taking responsibility for their education and making sure they're not profiled differently from any other kids within the school. We have a very good relationship with them working with tier elite players and that has been new in the last four or five years, and it's a policy that the IRFU are promoting. And it's working slowly.

BF: What is the strongest/weakest aspect of Munster rugby? What are you doing to maintain/improve them?

GF: "The strongest aspect of Munster rugby, and always had been since before I was heard of, are the people. Our success has been built on having excellent people on and off the field, people with great character who have grown up in a slightly different culture given that lots of our areas of support are more rurally based than you'd get elsewhere. Those people run everything from schools rugby to club rugby to supporters and the professional staff and up to the overseas players we've been very lucky with. It's a different culture and those people have been our success. And the cross-sport support is a huge thing in Munster as well.

The weaker area is our facilities. I wouldn't be happy with them generally. Up to 20 years ago, rugby was seen as a Cork and Limerick thing but now it's right across the five counties. I'd like to see us improve our facilities across the board, not just stadiums. All the young players are honed in the domestic game in clubs and schools and I'd like to see us improve them. Personally, I think a lot of our underage rugby should be played in the better-weather months of the year. In Ireland, we try and train our kids in the worst months of the year and it's an issue for our skills and enjoyment of running and passing. I'd love to see us play into May and even have 10-a-side rugby for kids in August and September. Our competition model for our young players needs to improve also. You raised the issue about (doubling up on) facilities in Cork and Limerick -- we have a rental agreement with CIT and with UL. All the admin office is in Cork and it's unique to have a team spread over two cities.

Under our new strategic plan we want to move in the immediate/short term to a modern training facility if we can fund it. No location has been confirmed at the moment but I think it will make economic sense that it needs to be on the edge of a city -- full stop -- where it can be open to other sports as well and maybe give an opportunity to generate income. The plan is in place. The part that's missing at the moment is the funding. What we're looking at is a Public/Private Partnership, which is the sensible approach to things.

We've looked at other clubs and other sports and a lot of them are involved like we are with institutes who have facilities that are idle a lot of the time. In the current climate in Ireland there is good value to be had in PPP. No decision has been made on location.

A big issue for us is the development of the Cork-Limerick motorway which is next to be developed and we're told will be a 50/55-minute journey. That's a huge issue for us and will be a huge economic benefit if it can get developed. My understanding is that the lands have been bought and the plans are in place but it's been parked because of Government funding in the last year. That's a big thing for the whole economy of Munster itself and it's something we've been pushing for.

For more from Brendan see brendanfanningrugby.wordpress.com

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