Monday 19 March 2018

Back from edge of rugby's precipice

In 2003 a march by more than 2,000 Connacht fans to the IRFU HQ stopped their team from being disbanded. But a new book reveals how the team came even closer to being wound up just six years later

After years of uncertainty around their future, John Muldoon and the Connacht side taste victory by lifting the Pro12 trophy at Murrayfield last season. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
After years of uncertainty around their future, John Muldoon and the Connacht side taste victory by lifting the Pro12 trophy at Murrayfield last season. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

John Fallon

So, to all the Connacht supporters, hands up those of you who have heard of Morgan Buckley? Now, both of you down the back, keep your hands in the air if you can explain how he contributed more to Connacht winning the Pro12 title in Murrayfield than, say, Pat Lam or John Muldoon, or anyone else for that matter. Huh? Morgan who?

It's presumed by most supporters that the closest Connacht came to being disbanded was in 2003 but, in fact, the biggest threat came six years later. On that occasion, staging a march to the IRFU headquarters or conducting any other protest would probably not have saved the province's professional team.

The endless cycle of losing matches and losing money had taken as much toll on those in Connacht as it had in the IRFU. The union kept funding Connacht but couldn't see any return from what seemed to be a bottomless pit.

Connacht's contention was that it wasn't being funded enough for it to go out and make money. Supporters wouldn't come to see a team that was not winning and in order for them to win, funding was needed to invest in players. It was a vicious circle but, as the economic downturn hit, both parties had endured enough. Something needed to be done, once and for all.

The IRFU and Connacht went into the procedure with the genuine intention of finding a solution, but there were some within the union hoping that this would be the process which would finally see the demise of Connacht, while there were several people running the game in the province who could not see themselves surviving a forensic investigation.

The examination went on for several months. Players, coaches, staff and officers were interviewed; accounts were scrutinised, minutes of meetings examined, stakeholders interviewed, facilities audited, while the IRFU input was also thoroughly checked. Every aspect of Connacht was looked at.

The lengthy report detailed all of this but, essentially, it came down to two things. Financially, Connacht - in terms of return on investment - was a disaster, and in most other business environments would be closed. However, from a rugby standpoint, there was a glimmer of hope. A potential gem had been spotted and the man who played God with Connacht, Morgan Buckley, recommended that this be given a chance and that life be breathed into it.

Buckley is from Cork and still lives in Kinsale. He now works for World Rugby as its general manager for development, implementing rugby programmes in 130 member unions.

But, for over a decade and a half, before he took up his current position in 2010, Buckley was one of the most influential people in Irish sport.

Operating under the radar with a low profile, he carried out extensive work for the Irish Sports Council, delving into up to 70 sports, while the IRFU made extensive use of his talents in all four provinces and nationally in the domestic and professional games.

When the IRFU came calling in 2008, asking him to examine Connacht, it was one of the final jobs he took on before taking up his current position with World Rugby.

Buckley knew Irish rugby inside out by that stage, having started his first project in the mid-1990s while the IRFU tried to prepare for professionalism.

The IRFU were sufficiently well-resourced to run the game while it was amateur, but this needed to change rapidly with the advent of the professional era. There were very few employees, there was a huge volunteer culture and it was poorly set up to embrace the professional game. Ireland lagged behind other countries.

A benchmarking exercise, initially used in New Zealand, was applied to Ireland's national team, examining the win rate.

"I think it was about 28 per cent," said Buckley. "Against the top countries it was about 15 per cent. By that it meant that Ireland won only 28 per cent of matches played. People knew that it was low but they were shocked when they realised how far off the pace they were.

"There were some very big decisions taken. In '99 Argentina beat Ireland and we were having one of our strategic planning meetings the day after that. It was like being at a funeral, it was the first time Ireland hadn't qualified for a World Cup and they were all going, 'We can't let that happen again'. Basically, it was agreed that more resources needed to be put into a high-performance system."

The work of Dr Liam Hennessy, the IRFU's national fitness director, was crucial. He could see the need to limit the number of games each player took part in, for proper pre-season training regimes, and for the alignment of the demands of playing for the provinces and the national team. Basically, all sides needed to sing off the same hymn sheet.

"In those days Irish players' strength, fitness and conditioning was miles off the pace. We had rugby talent but building people who were fit for purpose needed to be kicked up a gear, and it did under Dr Liam's direction. The win rate goes up from something like 28 per cent in the mid-90s, starts creeping up to 40, 50, 60 and 70 per cent for the 2003 World Cup in Australia. After Argentina they realised that if they didn't invest, they wouldn't remain competitive.

"They had to put in place a system that brought players back. A lot of the players in '99 were playing rugby in the UK and in France. There was hardly any contracting of players. So they had to go to contracting and set up a professional games system here. That cost a huge amount of money and in that period immediately after '99, up to 2003, they laid down the real foundations for a professional game model."

That was, of course, when the first threat to disband Connacht came into the public domain, as the IRFU examined the best structure to take the game forward.

"My view, working closely with the IRFU, was that whenever a big decision had to be made, they all took the right decisions," he said. "They weren't always the fastest at making those big decisions, which in many ways was a real strength. They based their decisions on hard analysis and an understanding of what business they were in - what were the key ingredients.

"They realised that our model was closest to Australia. They had to compete with other sports - in those days there were 28,000-30,000 players in the country. They had to build a domestic game model because they couldn't import players and continue to resource it."

The IRFU realised that they needed to spend serious money developing their venues if they were to generate the cash needed to fund the professional game - not just redeveloping Lansdowne Road but also the provincial grounds.

"In those days the provincial teams weren't generating the revenues needed to keep their head above water. They had to be subsidised, to the tune of probably 100 per cent to start with, then 80 per cent, 70 per cent and so on. The Leinsters, Ulsters and Munsters began to contribute 10, 20 and 40 per cent. But Connacht were always in the 80, if not 90, per cent bracket, because they were not generating the revenue to keep themselves going, while costs were rising."

The Celtic Tiger, the success by Ireland under Eddie O'Sullivan and Munster finally achieving Heineken Cup glory all combined to bring about a glory period, before Leinster found their path to glory and tapped into the vast cash resources available in Dublin.

But Connacht were continuing to struggle and by 2008, with the recession starting to kick in, Ulster also struggling financially and the IRFU facing a huge bill for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road (not to mention an uphill battle to sell long-term ticket packages), the union took a fresh look at Connacht to see if continuing with the project was worthwhile.

"Connacht's business model was struggling because their average home crowd was between 2,000 and 3,000, Leinster were getting between 8,000 and 12,000 at their games, while Munster were always going to get 10,000 - and in the big matches it spiked.

"Connacht benchmarked the lowest attendance rates - lowest everything - and were a 90 per cent funding model. So clearly there was something not right, something unsustainable.

"We put all of the facts on the table so any decision would be based on facts. The big issue was that there was huge emotion from the previous march. There was also a realisation from Connacht that they had gone beyond marching because they knew themselves what the business model looked like.

"The review took about two to three months at the end of 2008. I submitted a report just coming up to Christmas. The key picture that emerged from it was that the IRFU's number one aim is the success of the national team and to have a sustainable national team programme you need to have the base of 120 to 130 professional players, maybe more.

"At any given time, 25 to 30 per cent of those players are injured in the pro game. At any given time each team is allowed six international players max, non-Irish qualified players who are absolutely vital to the success. But four by six is 24 players, and then with your 25 per cent out injured, if you have 100 players and 24 foreign that's 76 to choose from.

"So if you have only got 100 players, which effectively is three squads of 30, your Irish team base comes down to 50 fit players from which to run your international programme. Add another few people that aren't on form and then you are heading into Scotland territory, of trying to run a game with two teams.

"When you do the maths, Ireland needed four squads of 30 in the professional game, because that gives you the wriggle room to play at the level.

"The next element of the equation was that Connacht had a brilliant academy programme. Nigel Carolan was doing outstanding work. They were ahead of the game in terms of integrating schools and clubs. What he was doing, and we can now see the result of it, was outstanding. You close that down, you then take all of that out of the pipeline.

"The rugby argument is saying we need four strong provinces and four strong academies to feed the national objective. If you start sliding down, you damage the overall rugby model and Scotland and Italy will overcome you. Then you have trouble with Namibia and Georgia giving Ireland scares in the World Cup. You could see that, come World Cup time, a weakened Irish team would have been easier to knock off. These are threads. You pull that thread and next thing Ireland take a hit against a tier two country who we have never lost to in a World Cup."

The potential lying within the Connacht academy and the need to keep a professional playing roster of around 120-130 players were the key reasons for continuing to fund the province.

But the report also outlined that Connacht needed to be funded accordingly, if it was to achieve these objectives. So, those few people in the IRFU who were hoping for a recommendation for closure were now being told they needed to put their hands deeper into their pockets.

Connacht were also being told that they needed to get their act together and move from a committee-led organisation towards a streamlined business board model.

"The IRFU are good people who make good rugby decisions and they realised that the rugby decision was the primary one - that the business one had to be made work. The saving grace was the raw material, the potential and ingredients. But it needed a massive shifting in gear," Buckley added.

"The report also said there was no guarantee of success but laid bare the consequences of not investing in Connacht, and offered a doomsday scenario.

"That was where the IRFU had to take a punt. Who could have predicted that Pat Lam would come along? From being bottom of the league you would have been a madman to predict the success. It just shows what can happen if the raw ingredients are there."

The new plan succeeded because most of the infrastructure was actually in place on the ground. All it needed was sufficient finance and goodwill from the IRFU hierarchy and the seeds were sown for success, although Buckley has downplayed his role in Connacht going on to finally lift their first title.

"I didn't create that success, it was Pat Lam and the players," added Buckley.

However, it was his recommendation to breathe life into the rugby in Connacht which got them there.

But what would have happened if it wasn't the rugby potential which swayed the argument?

"If you were making the decision on an accounting situation, you would have closed it down."

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