YES: The IRFU are being hysterical. They’re taxpayer subsidised. We shouldn’t have to subscribe to watch matches

The IRFU has been scathing in its response to Minister Eamon Ryan's 'cracked' plan to make rugby games free-to-air on TV. But is he right?

Dan White

IRFU boss Philip Browne certainly laid it on with a trowel last Tuesday.

Describing Communications Minister Eamon Ryan's proposals to designate Irish Six Nation and Heineken Cup games free-to-air as "cracked," he claimed that implementing these proposals would cost the IRFU 18pc of its annual income, about €12m a year.

Browne then went on to accuse Minister Ryan of "gambling with the future of Irish rugby." It was, from the normally mild-mannered Browne, heavy stuff.


A row has been brewing between the Government and the IRFU, the body which runs Irish rugby, ever since Eamon Ryan last month announced his plans to designate several sporting events as free-to-air. Among these were Six Nations and Heineken Cup rugby games, the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival and certain GAA All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling Championship games.

While the GAA and the horsey set have so far kept their powder dry on Ryan's proposals, the IRFU has gone absolutely ballistic.

To support his claims of the massive losses which the IRFU would allegedly suffer if Six Nations and Heineken Cup games were designated free-to-air, Browne wheeled out the chief executives of the Six Nations and ERC, the organisation which owns the Heineken Cup, to support his claims.

It's all very scary stuff but has the IRFU got its sums right? I have my doubts. In making its calculations, the IRFU seems to have included the full amount -- about €9m -- which it receives from RTE and the BBC for the Six Nations, and the €3m it receives from Sky for the Heineken Cup games.


That, of course, is complete nonsense. Six Nations games have always been free-to-air and the notion that Heineken Cup broadcasting rights would have no value if the games had to be shown on terrestrial channels beggars belief.

This week's outburst from the IRFU also ignored the huge amounts of money the organisation has received from the taxpayer in recent years. Last week the Aviva Stadium, previously known as Lansdowne Road, opened its doors for the first time. The Irish taxpayers funded almost half of the €400m cost.

The IRFU also dipped into the public purse to help pay for the rebuilding of Thomond Park in Limerick two years ago while the organisation continues to receive about €4m a year in grants.

In other words, the IRFU is a taxpayer-subsidised organisation seeking to justify selling some of its most attractive games to Sky TV, which many of those taxpayers won't be able to afford.

That stinks.

But there is an even more fundamental problem with the IRFU's position.

Despite the appointment of several 'development officers' the game still continues to draw the vast bulk of its players from a handful of, mostly fee-paying, schools in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick.

Television is by far the most effective means available to the IRFU to spread knowledge of and interest in its games. However, by restricting at least some of its games to satellite channels, the IRFU runs the risk of doing long-term damage to the development of the sport.

The IRFU's response to Eamon Ryan's modest proposal has bordered on the hysterical. By completely over-playing its hand and exaggerating the likely impact of this, it has inflicted far more harm on Irish rugby than the Minister ever could.