Sunday 22 January 2017

Six shooters can't afford to fire blanks

Championship needs to be more exciting to fend off advances made by game at club level

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

Ireland players warm-up during the squad’s open training at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Friday ahead of their Six Nations opener against Wales at the same venue next Sunday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Ireland players warm-up during the squad’s open training at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Friday ahead of their Six Nations opener against Wales at the same venue next Sunday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

The '90s was truly a great time to be reporting on Irish rugby. At club level the All-Ireland League had gripped everyone's imagination - even if the rugby wasn't very imaginative - and the national side were frequently bailing water from a boat that could never settle in calm waters.

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It wouldn't have been much fun if you were on board, but if you were hovering nearby with a laptop you were never short of a line. Aah, happy days.

In the circumstances then, crisis was a category under which lots of stuff got filed. Sacked coaches, positive drug tests, a manager shunted into the siding for doing much the same to a journalist - it was all happening.

We were taken back there last week while listening to talk of the 'crisis' that currently attends Irish rugby. And how that same crisis has cast a pall of gloom over the land as we prepare for next weekend and the return of Warren Gatland, who himself featured large in those halcyon days before the turn of the century.

Its epicentre is the Irish-less state of the knockout stages in the European Champions Cup - unthinkable when Anthony Foley, Paul O'Connell and Leo Cullen were lifting five Heineken Cups in seven seasons. This has been brought about by a perfect political storm that has raged for more than three years.

At its end we had the transformation of the television picture, and in professional sport it is tv that calls the tune. So in France the LNR, who run the Top 14, landed a deal with Canal Plus worth circa €79.9m per year. And in England Premiership Rugby greeted the arrival to the market of BT Sport - from nowhere - like the Allies in Europe in 1945, and hoovered up the €50m a year they were offering.

Overnight the spending power of clubs in those countries went from loose change to a sackful of cash. A Premiership manager we would speak to frequently was always moaning about how green was the grass on the Irish side of the fence: better money over here, a less stressful playing schedule, and a decent chance of winning a medal. And not a bad place to live either. Small wonder he couldn't drag lads across the Irish Sea.

The padlock on the box was applied in 2002 when the then finance minister Charlie McCreevy introduced a scheme whereby sports people across any code could reclaim 40 per cent of the tax paid on earnings from the best 10 years of their careers, if they were tax resident in Ireland when making the claim.

If that had secured Irish players for the Irish market then it was the second lock to be opened when the perfect storm started blowing. In October 2013 an amendment was made to the Finance Act whereby players didn't have to be back in Ireland when making their McCreevy claim. Rather they had to be tax resident in an EEA (European Economic Area) or EFTA (European Free Trade Association) country when filling out the form.

The first lock had been the English clubs' deal with BT in 2012. The third had been the French deal with Canal Plus in 2013. The aggregate reduced Ireland - and our PRO12 pals in Wales, Scotland and Italy - to also-rans in the race to fill your boots. Gradually our man in the Premiership thought the Irish shade of green had lost some of its lustre. Players and their agents were keen to talk, not just to up the ante in their contract negotiations with the IRFU, but to get serious about the prospect of packing their bags.

The IRFU response to this has been mixed. Under Tom Grace's leadership as honorary treasurer, the drive to cut costs has been a hard one. Running a tight ship has always been the union's strong suit, and Grace does stricture like a crab at 40 fathoms. The effect on the bottom line is impressive: the union is virtually debt-free on a stadium that opened for business in 2010, and last year they turned in a surplus of €8.6m.

It's an achievement to have come through a recession in such rude financial health, but that doesn't extend to the IRFU being ready to plough ahead with confidence on the field. At the top end they've been busy cutting the number of national contracts on offer, and at the other end their spending on the domestic game has become a dead pool. In 2007 the union was putting 20 per cent of its income back into the domestic game. That figure is now down to 13.4 per cent of expenditure.

You can't ignore your grassroots and expect to be winning awards at the flower show. And when threatened by outside forces, as is currently the case in the pro game, it might make sense to look at how best to raise new revenue and utilise better what you already have. The money paid by Puma, for example, to exit their sponsorship deal - rapidly replaced by Canterbury - was gravy. What happened to it?

There are 7,500 debenture tickets coming online in 2017/'18 - they sold for €15k a pop on the last issue - and the naming rights deal with Aviva runs out in 2019/'20. So the financial future is hardly bleak. Maybe it's time to loosen up a bit there lads, but nothing about the current IRFU regime suggests it's open to that way of thinking.

Despite the gloomy atmosphere the stress on the Irish system does not have negative implications for the team's performance in the Six Nations. The wholesale recruitment by the clubs of England and France is just that: club business.

What the Six Nations needs to be mindful of, however, is the next point of attack. With the demise of ERC the unions have already lost control of the club game. Unquestionably the Champions Cup is a leaner, meaner competition. And equally it's hard to see how its new owners will long tolerate the presence of the Italians, who are neither lean nor mean. Cut them off from the club game and suddenly your Six Nations Championship is missing a wheel.

The European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) agreement kicked off in 2014, for a minimum eight years, so in theory the Italians are safe for the moment. You wouldn't want to be relying on that.

In the meantime the Six Nations needs to optimise its product, because this is a war now, and club owners have zero interest in an international game that takes up valuable time in the season. Two things present themselves immediately for change: the eligibility for international rugby itself; and the way the game is played in the Championship.

The first is a World Rugby issue - for which evidently they have no appetite - but has clear implications across the board. The ease with which players can qualify for countries not their own is ludicrous. Player movement is market-driven at club level, but that should never extend to the international game. If the law of the land demands you spend five years somewhere before you can secure citizenship - as it does here - then sport should follow suit. The 'project player' planning that obtains currently is rendering the gap between club and Test tier harder to discern. And it's bad for business.

So is crap rugby. Back in the days when we were feeding off the various crises we didn't stop to think about the frequently poor quality of the AIL, mainly because what it replaced had been so awful. That's not the case with the Six Nations.

On a beautifully sunny Saturday last March we were presented with a day's rugby that was so good it beggared belief. It was the perfect end to an ordinary season.

Weather militates against you playing that way all the time, but mindset is the man driving this bus. As Warren Gatland pointed out last week, it's a short campaign - so one slip-up and the heat escalates exponentially.

True, but winning rugby doesn't have to be low-risk rugby. And in the battle to keep the international game at the top of the tree, punters need to be given more than 80 minutes of hard graft. That's exclusively what it was back in the '90s when Ireland were lurching from one crisis to the next.

As car crash tv goes it had its attractions, but the demands have changed now and we have the resources to make it better. Crack on with doing just that.

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