Sunday 17 December 2017

Groundwork still undone

IRFU finances are in a healthy state but the union needs its senior team to be successful, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At 5.15pm last Friday at a sunny Lansdowne Road, IRFU president John Callaghan made a bit of history. The acoustics may have been crap as he started his farewell speech but you couldn't argue with the content, and certainly not the backdrop, which was stunning.

Behind the union president was the appealing vista of a pristine and colour co-ordinated stadium where even the shade of the immaculate pitch matched the seats that swept around it.

Callaghan was opening the agm and signing off his year as president. It was appropriate that he was in the chair for this first annual meeting in the new stadium, for Callaghan has been a good president, utterly devoid of the pomposity that sometimes afflicts people fitted for that blazer.

And of course he was going out on a high, for the surrounds said it all. Aviva is a magnificent addition to Irish rugby and to the Dublin skyline. And it won't drag the union down as the Millennium did to the Welsh Rugby Union.

Treasurer Tom Grace said that nobody could be sure what the situation would be here in 2020 but in his head, and on the books, the plan is for the union's stadium debt to be settled by then.

There was a time at IRFU annual meetings where the trick was to close your eyes and imagine a truck. A big truck. Then you had to picture it filled with cash. And that equated to the amount of moola the IRFU would have sitting in their bank account, getting fatter and taking up more space by the month when the game was crying out for investment.

Not anymore. It's all -- well nearly all -- been hived off to pay for the future. Critically this will not prevent the union from returning profits year on year, and this term concludes with a surplus of €1.7m. Down the line they have more pay days: in 2013 the IRFU will get to flog another 3,700 of their 10-year seats which at today's prices could bring them €55m; and two years after that they will have freed up another 1,300 seats which could generate €19.5m.

As it stands, they only have €6m to pay on their share of the debt, for their ticket sales and cash reserves have accounted for the rest. Small wonder both the honorary treasurer and outgoing president were looking happy. There were times when it seemed we would be saddled with the old Lansdowne Road forever, and at last here is a stadium for the future, one whose arrival does not mean compromising the game itself.

But those advance seat sales in 2013 and 2015 will be driven or stalled by the state of the team as much as the state of the economy. Eighty one per cent of the union's income is generated on the back of the international side. And around the corner is the next World Cup, which has the potential to puncture the game here if it becomes a repeat of 2007.

You may have missed it last week but a few days after the Brisbane Test-- a game the Wallabies could have lost to us, but didn't -- the ARU chief executive John O'Neill came out with some strong words about where they were going. After only 18 wins from 32 Tests since Robbie Deans took over, O'Neill reckoned it was time to say something.

"A winning team has to be ruthless," he said, before meeting with Deans and high performance manager David Nucifora. "The All Blacks often don't appear to be playing well, but they suddenly have 20 points on you. We've got to move into a space where coming second is not an option. If you want to get from a 56 per cent success rate to a 70 per cent success rate, you're only going to do it by being absolutely uncompromising. And we're at a point where the honeymoon is over.

"That's not a threat. But the improvement in the winning percentage has to start now. You cannot say 56 per cent is acceptable. It's not. It is important to look at the trends and it's fair to say the inconsistency element is something which worries us. The draw against Ireland last year, the loss to Scotland at Murrayfield and England in Sydney, are all games we were capable of winning, and arguably [we] were the better team. We have to be capable of putting teams to the sword. That's not quite there yet."

Can you imagine Philip Browne getting stuck into Declan Kidney in similar fashion? What would O'Neill say if they had lost five in a row as we have?

We're not suggesting that Browne should be getting on Kidney's case but O'Neill's comments reinforced the gulf in attitude between them and us. The Aussies used to bat around the same place in the world order as we did, before they got serious nearly 30 years ago and gradually left us behind. And even allowing for our development post-Lens into a respectable rugby nation, we are still well behind them when it matters.

There was a slightly surreal feel to Brisbane last weekend because so many first-choice players were missing. Their absence has been interpreted as short-term pain for medium-term gain. Of course it was useful to expose some players to Test football but you have to be careful in not getting carried away with this. Filling the seats on the plane does not make them contenders.

Understandably, they didn't do much to change the fact that when the opposition had the ball in broken play Ireland were unable to contain them, and that -- especially in the two games in New Zealand -- you were looking at players who could shift into a higher gear and just take off.

We are still not athletic enough and our refusal to get on board with Sevens has been negligent. Interestingly, in Philip Browne's report on Friday he referred to the setting up of a working party, under the chairmanship of Frank Sowman, to look at how Sevens is operated in other countries and to recommend how we might catch up, now that the Olympics has forced us to get on board with the short game.

Coincidentally, this would be the same Frank Sowman who stood in as manager for Noel Murphy on the Irish tour of Australia in 1994, a trip which opened his eyes to how far the Aussies had got ahead of us.

And here we are, 16 years later, asking Frank to suss out Sevens for us? As it happens, our recent hosts -- who won thwe London Sevens yesterday -- will assemble a 14-man squad at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra this week to prepare for the Commonwealth Games in October.

Nearly half of that squad played Super 14 rugby this season, so we're not talking about a separate entity involved in a pursuit that has no relevance to the 15-a-side game. In fact 13 of the current, senior Wallaby squad have played Sevens for their country. We're talking about a group who are using the athleticism and skills they have developed for the short game and transferring them successfully to the bigger stage.

We're too late on this one for next year's World Cup, but perhaps by the time we get to the Olympics we'll be seeing some benefits. By then, the stadium will be not far off its final payment. And hopefully it will be home to a team making the most of every resource we have.

Sunday Independent

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