Thursday 19 April 2018

Signs of progress from new coalition

John Greene

John Greene

The new government has been in office for 61 days. The bulk of its focus has been on the parlous state of the country's finances, but the day-to-day business of running a state has to be got on with too, and that includes the wonderful world of sport.

The curious thing is that the newly constituted Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has been slow to get up and running -- something not in keeping with other departments in the new government. There is still a message running on the new department's website to that effect: 'We are currently updating this website to reflect the transition from the Department of Transport to the Department of Tourism, Transport and Sport. We hope to make these changes as soon as possible and appreciate your understanding and co-operation during this changeover.'

In fairness to the two ministers, Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring, some latitude is probably warranted, even after 61 days. Varadkar has been honest, publicly stating several times that his grasp of sport is not one of his strong suits. It is likely he will lean heavily on Ring in that sense.

But at least Varadkar has shown a willingness to admit his weaknesses. And given the performances of our previous so-called sports-mad ministers, having a passion for sport does not a good sports minister make. Certainly Varadkar is a politician who appears to like his policy documents, who projects a clear sense of right and wrong as he sees it and who seems to have an almost pathological need for transparency, badly needed in the world of Irish sports administration.

Ring is a more old-school politician. First elected in 1994, he has been around long enough to know his way round the Irish political system. His involvement in grassroots sport in Mayo will give him the kind of insight that Varadkar doesn't possess. They make for an odd couple.

The one disappointment has been that, from a sporting point of view, they have been slow out of the blocks. We have yet to get a sense of what their plans are for the next five years. Varadkar's mission statement in the sporting arena states: 'Improve local sports facilities, and support Ireland's top-level athletes to compete on the world stage.' Ring, meanwhile, is known to be particularly keen on the whole area of participation. But we will soon need to see the meat of their plans.

The principal delay in getting the new sports team into action appears to have been a logistical one -- the process of relocating staff, files, etc. In the interim, presumably, the ministers have read their briefs, although the required round of meetings with the key stakeholders has barely gotten off the ground. The sooner they happen the better.

So while the new team is entitled to some leeway, that has to be limited and interested parties will not be unreasonable in expecting the energy and dynamism of the new government to start reaching out soon to the sporting landscape.

Not that the coalition has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to issues affecting sport. Last week, for example, we received confirmation from Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte that the government was scrapping plans to make, among other things, high-profile rugby matches involving Irish teams freely available on terrestrial television. This was a cockamamy Green Party scheme which had no basis in reality.

When Jonathan Sexton put the icing on the cake of Leinster's win over Toulouse last weekend with a penalty in the final seconds, it reaffirmed just how crazy the notion of forcing the Heineken Cup off satellite television and on to RTE was. As much as anything, the success of this current Leinster squad is a victory for sound investment, as it was with Munster previously. And when it comes to investing in Irish rugby, it is worth remembering that a huge chunk of that money comes from television rights.

Sky Sports views its Heineken Cup coverage as one of the jewels in its crown and guards it zealously. As a result, it is prepared to pay handsomely for the competition -- the dividend to Irish rugby is thought to be in the region of €5m a year. A further €11m is understood to be generated by the Six Nations. Had plans to effectively eliminate Sky, or other pay-per-view providers like Setanta or ESPN, from the Irish market, the cost to the game here could well have topped €10m a year.

What hopes would the likes of Sexton (pictured) have of reaching Heineken Cup finals or winning Six Nations Championships? In recent years, the playing pitch with the big English and French clubs has been levelled and the Green Party proposal would have effectively wiped out the gains Irish rugby has made at the stroke of a pen.

Rabbitte's colleague over in Agriculture, Simon Coveney, has also been throwing shapes. After appointing a new chairman to Bord na gCon, Phil Meaney, he has now instructed his department to look at the funding of horse racing. A doubling of the betting tax to two per cent seems inevitable, but a mechanism must be put in place to make sure all bets placed in Ireland -- and not just those made in a bookies -- are liable to the tax to ensure fair competition.

Sunday Indo Sport

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