Sport Rugby

Friday 20 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Half-assed FAI has always made IRFU look solid and ordered'

Philip Browne leads the IRFU in the manner of a careful man, writes Brendan Fanning

'Philip Browne is an unexciting, careful man, a classic product of south Dublin middle-class Protestant stock - essential IRFU in other words.'
'Philip Browne is an unexciting, careful man, a classic product of south Dublin middle-class Protestant stock - essential IRFU in other words.'

It has long been acknowledged in the IRFU that having the FAI close at hand has been a distinct advantage. Before Lansdowne Road was redeveloped as the Aviva Stadium, the FAI were regular paying customers because, despite being the biggest sport in the country, they didn't have an appropriate home of their own. And while that redevelopment is a code share, the IRFU still own the property. So it was good business for rugby.

Almost as good was the juxtaposition of the two bodies itself. Having the half-assed FAI close at hand always made for a good comparison.

So while soccer struggled to clear its share of the stadium debt, rugby presented teacher with a neatly completed sum before the bell went for end of class. Whatever the issue - selling long-term tickets, presenting healthy figures at the AGM - rugby always looked solid and ordered while soccer was all mouth and no trousers.

This was illustrated best by the Yin and Yang of the respective CEOs. There are many images of John Delaney, perhaps the most enduring is from Euro 2012, being carried aloft through the streets of Sopot in northern Poland by Irish fans who had separated him from his shoes and socks.

Only one image of Philip Browne springs to mind: sitting behind a desk in the IRFU office. Occasionally, being the mad thing that he is, Browne might have his jacket off, but that would have been on instruction, to convey the image of a hard-working leader. Browne is an unexciting, careful man, a classic product of south Dublin middle-class Protestant stock - essential IRFU in other words.

In his odes to the union over the years, the former rugby correspondent of The Irish Times, Ned van Esbeck, used to refer to these men as "seasoned timbers". Browne is all oak. The only times his shoes and socks would come off outside of the family home would be to relive his days on the rowing team at university.

He went straight from union secretary to CEO when the position was created in 1998, and has been there ever since. So, along with John Delaney, he has been ever present on the joint IRFU/FAI group (New Stadium DAC) that oversaw the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road, and its continued upkeep.

According to a source well acquainted with that process, the joint operation painted a picture of two fundamentally different organisations. He says there was regular suspicion on the rugby side of the fence that soccer would default on their financial commitments - each union had to lob in €300k per month to the stadium company.

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"We always stuck to the protocol," he says. "That led to some controversy at the time because he (Delaney) was so used to getting his own way. For example, if the IRFU reps and the FAI reps agreed on something Delaney could then say: 'That's done,' whereas on the IRFU side it would have to be taken back to the union committee for approval. 'Crowd of fucking wimps,' Delaney would say."

The IRFU's committee system has survived the game's transition from amateur to professional, though not without much pain. Four years ago Mary Quinn became the first woman elected to the union committee, which remains technically the ultimate arbiter of what will be adopted and what is knocked back.

Otherwise, it is a preserve of men in middle age, which is a natural progression in a system that draws its members from the male-dominated provincial system. So you start with your school/club, get elected or co-opted to your province, and then make your way in orderly fashion via the IRFU AGM to the top of the tree.

The IRFU would like to think that they could never end up in a situation like the FAI, to be dominated so completely by one personality, but in honorary treasurer Tom Grace and performance director David Nucifora they have men with immense power.

Significantly, their public profile is sub radar compared to Delaney's aerobatics, complete with Dambusters soundtrack.

The union's struggles have less to do with transparent accounting and more to do with controlling the direction of the game. Browne has succeeded in vesting more power to make rugby decisions on the professional side of the house in a professional game board, as part of their Plan Ireland document in 2014, and in turn the union's management committee. But the IRFU's executive committee is still the group that signs off on changes in direction. And the AGM is still a dark alley.

If that system seems a hard slog then consider the voting power extended to past presidents of the union. Long after they have served their one season in a green blazer they continue to fetch up to home and away internationals - a shameful waste of resources - and to vote at the AGM. Four years ago, they illustrated the power of this lobby in derailing Finbarr Crowley from his journey to the president's chair. Crowley had been chairman of the management committee, and he had been busy shunting the old guard off the power track. They tripped a switch at the AGM and Crowley was voted down from the floor.

The coup left Philip Browne thoroughly exasperated, his efforts at reform undone by men he knew only too well, and who would have had a say in his own progress through the organisation.

It is common enough in rugby for CEOs to have marathon runs at the job, unlike other areas of business where the recommended shelf-life is circa eight years.

For example, John Feehan was just over 16 years in the Six Nations before moving on last year. Mick Dawson in Leinster and Garrett Fitzgerald in Munster have been in their jobs since 2001 and 1999 respectively. So rugby likes to stick with what and who it knows. In Browne's case that is as a full-time member of staff, reporting to the union's management committee.

In adopting this model the IRFU, and others in rugby, ignore the business maxim that if the CEO knows more than those around the boardroom table about the nuts and bolts of every moving part in the business then you have a problem. Compared to the FAI, clearly it's considered a minor detail.

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