Smarter spending would mean a better chance of success
As I passed through the turnstiles of Eden Park to watch Auckland Blues play Otago Highlanders, I was reminded of home. While the accents around me were different and the weather somewhat milder, the passion for the spectacle was reminiscent of home crowds in Thomond Park.
As part of our St Patrick's Day celebrations, I was given the great honour of representing the Government in New Zealand. While there are many things which fascinate me about the Kiwi nation, I went contemplating two in particular: what I could learn about New Zealand's success in terms of their high-performance sporting programmes, and the country's recent hosting of the Rugby World Cup.
Given that the IRFU and the Government are working very hard to bring the competition to these shores in 2023, I wanted to learn as much as I could about what made another island nation's hosting of the tournament such a success in 2011.
A comparison between Ireland and New Zealand is striking in the many similarities that it yields. Stunning scenery, devoted sports fans and welcoming citizens aside, there is a difference of just over 100,000 in population - Ireland edging it by a nose.
The differences start to become more glaring when we look at the results elite athletes in New Zealand have produced in comparison to our own. To compare our international rugby successes might not be an appropriate starting point, as three-time World Cup-winning New Zealand's success is incomparable with most nations, regardless of the usual telling factors in the business of sport. It's interesting to note, however, that 40,000 more people regularly play rugby in Ireland than in New Zealand.
A fairer indicator of how the countries differ might be that of the Olympics. Despite memorably heroic efforts by the O'Donovan Brothers and Annalise Murphy, and several top ten finishes, we didn't perform as well as we thought we would in Rio last year. We came in 62nd place in the medals table with our 77 athletes, while the 199 athletes of New Zealand finished in 19th, with an impressive haul of 18 medals.
Of course, sport is not all about triumph, medals and trophies. In Ireland we should be very proud of the investment we have made in sporting participation over the years and the presence of GAA, rugby and soccer clubs across every town and village will testify to that. For generations we have built up a sporting culture which has captured the imagination of millions of adults and children across the four provinces.
Nevertheless, there is a duty for investment to reap reward, and this is as true of sport as anything.
There is no scarcity of talented athletes in Ireland, but it may be the case that the investment is not best organised to suit their needs. During my time in New Zealand, I had a long discussion with Alex Baumann, CEO of High Performance Sport New Zealand. In our conversation, the topic of funding inevitably came up, and it was interesting to see how our two countries differ in their approach to the funding of high performance athletes.
What struck me most was the timing of the funding: in New Zealand, funding for high performance athletes is decided years in advance, using a tiered system which targets sports which they think will be most successful. Here, our budgets for elite athletes are decided shortly before the beginning of the year with a clear emphasis on sports that have been successful in the past. While some years have been more successful than others, maybe it is time to take a more long-term view to ensure that the giant efforts of our sportsmen and women are acknowledged and they are given a real chance to be victorious on the most demanding stages. Due to the massive participation that we have nurtured in Ireland, we have a huge pool of talent - now it's a case of helping them succeed.
So, it's my job as Minister for Sport to convince my colleagues that we need a long-term vision for high performance athletes, and in the short term, greater funding for these athletes.
We also need to change the structure of funding to Sport Ireland. The annual nature of the funding means that for many coaches and managers, they cannot plan beyond a year-to-year model. That is not a basis to nurture our top talent. If we want greater success in Tokyo in 2020 we need to address the funding model now.
This was a great year to be visiting New Zealand, and to toast Irish success over the St Patrick's period. Fresh from ending the hosts' record-breaking unbeaten run, the feat by our men in Chicago was a conversation I was very proud to dwell on, and my hosts were more than happy to engage, such is their passion for their national sport.
What will stay with me most is the excited reaction that I received upon raising the prospect of an Irish Rugby World Cup. Many countries speak glowingly about the Irish fans, our sporting heritage and our many heroes down the years but I think this had a particular resonance in another small island nation, in the shadow of a much bigger neighbour.
Returning from New Zealand, inspired by the passion and dedication that they pour into sport on a daily basis and motivated by their tales of the World Cup in 2011, I was proud to be landing in a country equally passionate about sport and ready to host the world's rugby fans in 2023.
Patrick O'Donovan is Minister of State for Tourism and Sport
Sunday Indo Sport