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Plans to air rugby matches for free scrapped

CONTROVERSIAL plans to make high-profile rugby matches in Ireland free-to-air were last night scrapped by the new Government.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), which had mounted a high-profile campaign against the Green Party's proposals, welcomed the announcement by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte.

A decision to abandon the plans was taken by the Fine Gael-Labour Government at Cabinet yesterday.

The idea had previously been mooted by former Communications Minister Eamon Ryan.

Mr Ryan's proposals prompted a massive fallout last year, with Fianna Fail TDs claiming the free-to-air move would be "disastrous" for the professional game.

The Green Party politician -- who lost his seat in February's general election -- became increasingly isolated by his coalition partners.

At the height of the controversy, after the plans were first revealed in the Irish Independent, the IRFU predicted it would suffer loses of up to €12m if the body was compelled to ensure the matches were broadcast free of charge on the likes of RTE or TV3.

While the Six Nations is available free of charge on RTE until 2013, because it won the broadcasting rights, the Heineken Cup is broadcast live on Sky Sports, which viewers must pay for.

Under the Green Party's proposals, both competitions would have been added to a free-to-air list which would have guaranteed they would be broadcast free of charge in the future.

Announcing his decision last night, Mr Rabbitte said a balance had to be struck which ensured the "financial viability of sports as well as the maximum access for viewers".

And he stressed that the Six Nations was still shown live by RTE. If this was ever proposed to change, Mr Rabbitte said he would intervene.


"A broad spectrum of support existed for the current list while a range of other events had been the subject of submissions as part of the public consultation," Mr Rabbitte said.

"However, after considering all factors, I decided to continue with the designation of the current list of events, on the same basis, and not to add any events to that list."

Last night's decision brings the long-running saga over the lucrative broadcasting rights to an end. It means that Sky Television, which has held the rights for the Heineken Cup since 2007, will continue to bid for and broadcast games involving Irish teams.

A spokesman for the IRFU said it welcomed Mr Rabbitte's decision as the proposals from the Green Party had represented "one of the biggest threats to the survival and development of the game".

However, Mr Ryan told the Irish Independent he had "real concerns" that a huge audience, including those on lower incomes, would be excluded from watching rugby.

And he claimed there was a "real prospect" that Sky would in the future move to buy the rights to the Irish games in the Six Nations.

"I approached this from a rugby supporter's point of view, even though the IRFU disagreed with that. There's an important question here in terms of social policy and it was that social dimension I was concerned about," Mr Ryan said.

Irish Independent