Tuesday 25 July 2017

Please Minister, trust the IRFU on pay-per-view issue

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

To say that Minister Eamon Ryan's free-to-air Garryowen has stirred up a hornets' nest would be an understatement. However, open debate is seldom a bad thing. It is the essence of any decent democracy.

The principle of Minister Ryan's issue -- rugby for all -- will not raise a dissenting voice anywhere, least of all within the corridors of power at Lansdowne Road.

Rugby has long had a problem with elitism. My own background is working-class Dublin. They are roots of which I am proud.

Soccer was my first love and only the opportunity to attend a rugby-playing school allowed me to experience a sporting code otherwise alien to me and to my friends in the community in which I lived.

My mother, a widow, made huge sacrifices, working day and night in two different jobs, to give me that educational and sporting chance. When I made my way to Limerick and to college there in the early '70s, I found sporting utopia -- a city and a people I could identify with. A place where nothing but ability determined the club you joined and game you played.

By contrast, the IRFU was stuffy and elitist. It was everything it was purported to be. Player identity was by initial -- for the record I was AJP --Anthony Joseph Paul. Mind you, when they wrote to you, even that pseudo-dignified respect was denied: then, it was Dear Sir.

I could give you countless examples of the Union's self-indulgent snobbery, but just one small incident relating to player names comes to mind. It was before the World Cup in '87 and the panel to travel was being named at Sunday morning training in Lansdowne Road.

August

The then chairman of selectors (that august band of five, plus two subs) proceeded (on the side of the pitch) to read out those picked for New Zealand and Australia, in addition to the 15 who had finished the Five Nations against the Welsh in Cardiff.

"JJ McCoy, JJ Glennon, JAP Doyle, AJP Ward, PI Rainey," and on it read. No Jim, Tony or Philip. This was Rugger doing what Rugger did best back then -- reinforcing the stereotype.

I hated it then and despise it even more now. Put simply, the game was played and run by an elite and cosy club, ie, those who attended the privileged rugby-playing schools -- Limerick and the odd rural area apart.

Needless to say, I support any initiative that broadens the appeal of the game and provides the opportunity for those irrespective of background to participate, be it through mini, tag or whatever.

I long for the day rugby is on a par with Gaelic football, hurling and soccer, and believe that to be a realistically achievable objective. Success breeds success and the game is more popular now than ever -- and in every corner of the island.

That hasn't just happened by chance. It is the direct result of a very different governing body running the professional game, compared to the stuffy lot who ran the amateur game in times past.

Since Philip Browne came to the helm, the game is unrecognisable from what it was prior to his arrival. With a tuned in, down-to-earth committee, the chief executive has created a business model that is the confessed envy of other Celtic nations and beyond.

Club triumphs in Europe -- three provinces have lifted the Heineken Cup -- and unprecedented success over such a short period in the Six Nations haven't just happened by chance. The IRFU has invested heavily in the game at every level, driven from the top by the ultra-efficient manner in which it handles the professional elite.

We have a system that works, one in which indigenous players are happy and want to stay at home and which top-class players from abroad want to join up to -- think Dougie Howlett, Rocky Elsom, Felipe Contepomi, Jean de Villiers, to name but a few.

However, the fuel to keep the professional engine running comes from pay-per-view rights -- and specifically Sky TV. From a personal perspective, I would love to see live Heineken Cup coverage return to RTE. But with more people than ever watching and playing the game, the IRFU are clearly doing a most things right.

We all accept that the Minister must do the best he can for the tax-payer, but the key question he must ask in balancing idealism (free-to-air) with reality (pay-per-view) is: does he trust (and by extension do we, the taxpayers, trust) the IRFU to do what is best for Irish rugby?

The IRFU is a professional body run by professional people who care about the game. In an ideal world, they would want to present their product to as wide an audience as possible, but commercial realities don't work like that.

Those who want to watch rugby are watching it and the reason they want to watch it is the success that has been brought about by heavy, yet sensible financial investment.

And in a time of economic uncertainty we need that guaranteed TV investment now more than ever.

development

The levelling of the playing field for Connacht, as well as the long-overdue development of a meaningful Irish Sevens set-up on the IRB world circuit, must be at the top of the 'must do' agenda.

In an ideal world, we would all love free-to-air, but when we are boxing so comfortably above our weight, why risk change now? If, after the process of consultation to which the Taoiseach refers, the Minister is proved right, then hallelujah.

By all means let that consultation take place, but, unless the income is guaranteed at the same level, the end of professional rugby as we have come to know it will be nigh if we go to free-to-air.

The question bears repeating: do we trust the governing body to do what is best for Irish rugby? For me the answer is an unequivocal yes, making it thanks, but no thanks to Minister Ryan for now.

Irish Independent

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