Friday 24 November 2017

From our smallest clubs to our top players, nobody is safe in the grave new world

The economic collapse will soon see Irish rugby in survival mode, says George Hook

George Hook

George Hook

I t has been difficult to concentrate on rugby this past week. There was something strange about watching 30 grown men brawling for a pigskin when the country was being reduced to a feudal state of Europe. So far, and it may only be temporary, rugby has partially avoided the worst of the economic calamity. However, the full effects cannot be long in coming.

The IRFU's well-meaning policy of selling tickets through its constituent clubs was laudable and endeavoured to put the tickets in the hands of people who contributed to the game. However, an ill-advised pricing plan based on the experience of different economic times has created a financial catastrophe for clubs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even junior clubs are carrying losses of up to €50,000 on unsold tickets for the autumn campaign just ended.

There is a suggestion of an indemnity from the IRFU but as yet it remains unclear as to how it will work. Either way, the losses will either appear on the books of the clubs or the parent body.

Rugby, as the IRFU consistently reminded minister Eamon Ryan in the free-to-air debate, is Ireland's only professional sport. With an election on the way, the government will have more important fish to fry than worrying about what television channel hosts international rugby. The powers that be in Lansdowne Road will be able to plan on a continuing revenue stream from broadcasting rights but other revenues will be under pressure.

As of this week, every club contacted by this newspaper was willing to sell its international tickets to the highest bidder. Club officials had simply no faith that members would stump up for even reduced-price tickets, the IRFU's belated reaction to the November shambles. Honorary treasurers up and down the country were frantic to offload a possible financial headache. France may have been exciting opponents in the glory days, but the prospect of a full house for Marc Lievremont's team was deemed unlikely.

Even England's arrival is not certain to sell all the tickets issued to Irish clubs. For the first time in living memory, the big tour operators in the UK are finding it easy to access tickets for clients.

It is a stark contrast to the game against England at the beginning of the century when many of the senior clubs asked their members for a once-off dispensation to sell the ticket allocation to operators in order to repair some of the financial ravages of paying money to coaches and players imported from abroad. The clubs have seen sense on the pay-for-play front but the threat to club rugby is greater than ever.

One sector in rugby has escaped pressure but it cannot long continue. Across every facet of Irish business, public and private, revenues are falling and costs are being cut in tandem. It is a survival exercise that sooner or later will impact on the players as the revenues from tickets, sponsorship and, eventually, broadcasting reduce.

Already players are feeling the pinch as the big cheques for opening a supermarket or some such event have dried up and an ill-advised investment strategy in property is damaging their pension plans. The pressure to play at any price, to protect an income stream is creating injury lists unheard of little over a decade ago. Contract renegotiations will almost certainly be for reduced amounts or there will be a reduction in the number of contracted players.

Player agents will raise the spectre of an exodus by their charges to foreign parts. That may well happen but how many of the current Irish team would merit a second look by a French or English club? The French may have unlimited funds but the salary cap in the Premiership reduces the options when buying players. It may not be quite the seller's market out there that we are led to believe.

Losing players to foreign clubs may not quite be the disaster predicted by the IRFU. The representative players have no impact on club rugby and if their salaries were paid by a foreign power, then the drain on union funds would be reduced with a consequent advantage to the domestic game.

After all, Argentina's entire cohort of international players are abroad without any diminution of their on-field performance. The economics make sense. Export the players and get somebody else to pay for them and then recall them when required for international duty.

In that regard, last week's announcement of a new plan for the survival and enhancement of Connacht rugby bucked accepted economic thinking; the game has embarked on a policy of expansion as revenues tighten. I certainly wish the IRFU and Connacht well but it will be interesting to see the results after the initial three years of the experiment.

Rugby in the west will be led by a new group headed by a businessman. The democratically elected committee of the Connacht Branch is nowhere to be seen other than in the appointment of the president to the new management. The plan does bear the imprint of the IRB, an organisation that has blind faith in the superiority of business leaders over committed rugby administrators.

To supposedly kick-start the 'sleeping giant' that was USA Rugby, the International Board persuaded the leaders of the American game to vote for their own extinction to be replaced by a powerhouse of business leaders. The result has been a big fat zero for the game.

Tuesday's Budget will cut deep and those cuts will have a knock-on effect on rugby. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Sunday Independent

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