Sport Rugby

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Brendan Fanning: Hamilton decision to reverse leaves IRFU struggling with the pace of change

The union's PGB have a pretty big gap to fill less than two seasons after they started

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne: “No organisation can stand still in terms of its governance, which has to be under constant review.
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne: “No organisation can stand still in terms of its governance, which has to be under constant review." Picture: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On the morning of the Leinster versus Munster game in Dublin last weekend, a quorum of IRFU committee men met with what they call 'a one-item agenda'. Between those who were present and those who rang in, there was unanimity that the IRFU's Professional Game Board (PGB) would, on an interim basis at least, be headed by the union's immediate past president, Martin O'Sullivan.

Two nights previously, those same committee members had been sent a memo telling them that then PGB chairman, Gordon Hamilton, was stepping down, less than two seasons after he had stepped up.

This doesn't look very good. The long-winded note from Declan Madden, chairman of the union's management committee, said that Hamilton had to withdraw because of time commitments.

It is unclear if the former Ireland flanker, whose try in the World Cup semi-final against Australia in 1991 is part of Irish rugby folklore, underestimated the time commitment in the first place. Or if he buried himself so deep in the consultative process that he was struggling to come up for air. Or, indeed, if the grind of dealing on a regular basis with sectional interests - while running a successful shipping business - was so wearing that he had had enough.

Whatever it was, the upshot leaves the IRFU with two seismic events in close proximity: first, the shafting from the presidential merry-go-round of Finbarr Crowley in 2015; and second, Hamilton's reverse.

The common denominator is change. Crowley, while chairman of the management committee, had managed to deviate the septa of a raft of past presidents on his crusade to relocate power in the IRFU to a tight group. The way he was dispatched at the IRFU AGM in August last year was clinical.

Afterwards, a clearly unhappy chief executive Philip Browne said: "No organisation can stand still in terms of its governance, which has to be under constant review.

"Any organisation that thinks it can stand still on that perspective will go backwards. We have to have a governance that is fit for purpose, that not only allows us to deliver the game at grassroots level but also allows us to run the business end of the game at professional level.

"We've been striving to try and do that over the years, with success, or lack of success, depending on your perspective. Those are the facts."

The Hamilton development has none of the intrigue surrounding Crowley's demise, but coming just over a year later it calls into question the union's capacity to modernise effectively.

Hamilton was fast-tracked into the position of PGB chairman in January 2015, having arrived at the union only a year earlier. The establishment of the PGB itself was one of the twin peaks in the IRFU's 'Plan Ireland: a template for streamlining the union into a body fit for purpose'.

The other peak was the creation of the new post of performance director, which was filled by Australian David Nucifora. The impetus for Plan Ireland got its turbo boost in Waikato in June 2012, when the All Blacks put 60 points on Ireland.

Hamilton (then 51) was seen as the new guard - a successful businessman who clearly had a rugby background, but was not a career committee man with ambitions of wearing the blazer. He had experience of the professional scene in Ulster, where he had chaired their provincial management committee, and stepping up to the new IRFU PGB was a logical progression in a new era.

When contacted last week, Hamilton would not comment beyond referring us to Madden's memo. However, a source close to him maintains that he had become frustrated with the pace of change, or rather the resistance to it. He would have been at the sharp end of carrying Nucifora's message to the provinces.

Nowhere would this have been more acute than in the schools game, one of the most powerful and self-obsessed lobbies in Irish rugby. Nucifora's vision for this area is less concerned with the importance of the provincial cup competitions and more about getting players earlier into the elite development system. It hasn't gone down well.

"It's more of a problem in Ulster and Leinster, who see themselves as all-important," a senior IRFU source, who didn't wish to be named, said last week.

"Munster are more bothered about getting more schools playing the game and Connacht will just play along. Ulster and Leinster are the problems."

It's likely that the degree of unrest north of the border over the Ruan Pienaar affair - Nucifora is the devil incarnate up there for refusing to extend the South African's contract beyond this season - would have added to the grief at Hamilton's door. It is possible too that, as one of his union colleagues put it to us: "He might have spent too much time listening and not enough time doing."

Hamilton's successor, O'Sullivan, would have done his fair share of listening as well between his time on the Munster and IRFU committees.

At 62 he is hardly in his dotage, but clearly is from a different side of the house to Hamilton. O'Sullivan was a popular president last year, but finds himself now in an altogether more confrontational role.

The next IRFU committee meeting is in a fortnight, when the PGB again will be top of the agenda. It remains to be seen who else, if anyone, has declared an interest by then. Or if they have any ideas on how to nudge this wagon train forward.

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