Sinead Kissane: External investment way to keep Munster and the rest competitive
Ten years ago this month Ronan O'Gara did an interview which blew the lid off the way the Munster players viewed themselves and their new position at the top of European rugby. Munster were beginning the defence of the Heineken Cup away to Leicester Tigers in October 2006 and O'Gara was not in an apologist's mood to play down the confidence he had in his team-mates.
"We no longer suffer from being beaten before we travel to England or France any more. That's the level we're at in Munster. We expect to win," O'Gara said. "I honestly think that both for Munster and Ireland, we've got more talented players than the English in many positions".
You know the way this played out; it was left to O'Gara to back up his words and kick a penalty from halfway to win the game. The emotion around Munster during those years was so strong that we almost deluded ourselves into thinking that the good times were here to stay. If someone had warned back then that Munster would barely scrape into Europe a decade later, we would have fobbed it off as being as ridiculous as, oh, the notion of Donald Trump and his locker-room talk vying for a home on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Ten years on, the romance around Munster has drained into a form of fatal attraction where the team is being hurt by the very thing which sparked its attraction in the first place. "Fortress" Thomond is long gone, along with the event junkies. The most uncomfortable part of the past two years was that the team's un-Munster performances came under the watch of a man who did more than most to build the fearsome reputation that the province is renowned for.
How did it come to this?
Changing the boss doesn't change reality. Rassie Erasmus (right) isn't being positioned as the saviour of Munster but the fact that he is not entangled in the history of the province could bring an added clarity. At last week's Champions Cup launch, Erasmus hit a tragi-comic note when asked about Munster's pool: "You look at the pool wondering, 'Where's the easy game?' And then you realise that you are the easy game."
Bringing in Erasmus isn't the only outside help Munster need. In a radio interview this week, Paul O'Connell said "none of our provinces are run by businessmen" or "run as a business" in comparison to other teams who have private owners. The conversation was in the context of the IRFU player welfare programme.
But why isn't Munster and the other provinces run as a "business"?
In 13 days' time all the clubs in Scotland will vote at a Special General Meeting to "approve a motion that would permit external investment into the Union's (Scottish Rugby Union's) professional and performance rugby set-up". A statement on the SRU website reads: "A vote in favour of the motion will be the first step in enabling external investors to acquire a stake in the professional game". Cut through the jargon and it means that Edinburgh and Glasgow are up for sale to a suitable owner in order to bring in much-needed cash. When I asked outgoing Glasgow boss and incoming Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend about this proposal last week, he welcomed it as a positive move.
SRU chief executive Mark Dodson believes there will be interest to privately invest in Glasgow and Edinburgh. "These people exist. We've done our due diligence on where the money lies and the money is out there, it's out there in spades," Dodson said in an interview in August. "It's not for the faint-hearted but the rewards are now becoming tangible. You can see that in England".
In Ireland, the provinces remain under the overall control of the IRFU. In July, the Union announced it would allocate a further €1.2m to the domestic game for this season. "It is becoming increasingly clear that the professional game in Ireland can no longer rely on the IRFU being the 'lender of last resort' as the IRFU no longer has the capacity to absorb the increasing cost of the professional game as Irish rugby struggles to respond to the inflating player market in England and France," Philip Browne, IRFU CEO, was quoted as saying at their AGM in July.
So where does this leave the provinces exactly and sustaining their future and competitiveness in Europe? Munster have been bringing through younger talent but one or two big-name signings would have added a real competitiveness. Private investment from a suitable partner with an emphasis on home-grown talent in return for a percentage ownership has to be examined as a viable option in the future.
There should be no delusion here that the current structure and ownership model for the provinces is guaranteed to be sustainable in ten years' time. Just like O'Gara and that last-minute penalty in 2006, the provinces must find a way to survive. Because the landscape is changing. Fast.