Saturday 19 October 2019

He could walk down the street without being recognised - but IRFU chief has helped transform Irish sport

Irish rugby is on verge of glories unimaginable two decades ago, writes Eamonn Sweeney

Philip Browne: Monarch of all he surveys. Photo: Sportsfile
Philip Browne: Monarch of all he surveys. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

When Philip Browne was appointed chief executive of the IRFU in 1998, it was a bit like making someone captain of the Titanic after it had hit the iceberg.

Three years after the beginning of the professional era Irish rugby was in utter disarray. In the previous seasons the national team had won nine out of 40 Five Nations matches and never finished out of the bottom two. Rugby was the sick man of Irish sport.

The Triple Crown glory days of the 1980s were a distant memory and there seemed to be no prospect of anything changing. The 1997 season, when a world-class coach, Brian Ashton, had resigned, apparently bemused by the inability of the Irish players to respond to his promptings, seemed to put the tin hat on things.

With England having finally got their act together and France having just won a first Grand Slam in ten years, there seemed to be little a country like Ireland could do to challenge teams with such superior financial and population resources. Italy had just recorded a third successive victory over Ireland and looked likely to push us further down the pecking order when the Five Nations was inevitably expanded to Six.

It seemed unlikely that a 37-year-old Dubliner with a doctorate in geography whose sporting background was in rowing, where he'd competed for Ireland in the World Championships, was destined to preside over a great rugby renaissance.

Yet here we are 21 years on and, as the Six Nations begins again, Irish rugby is at an all-time high in terms of competitive excellence and public esteem. The national team is ranked number two in the world and considered by many to be the de facto number one following the November victory over the All Blacks which confirmed the impression that this is the strongest Ireland side of all-time.

The ever increasing public profile of the sport can be seen by the fact that both the All Blacks match and the Grand Slam-clinching victory over England attracted bigger TV viewing figures than the All-Ireland football and hurling finals. Player numbers are growing steadily as rugby makes inroads into areas previously seen as the preserve of other sports. The promising GAA star who throws his lot in with rugby has become an emblematic figure of this change in the national sporting weather.

This seems a potentially pivotal year for Irish rugby. Should the team live up to expectations and either win or reach the World Cup final, it would lead to a growth in public affection which could radically reshape the Irish sporting landscape. There is a sense that rugby is primed for an explosion and that a memorable World Cup campaign would light the fuse.

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Yet despite this change in fortunes Philip Browne remains as little known as he did when accepting the rusty chalice back in 1998. He could walk unrecognised down most streets in the country. This largely results from his own low-key approach and disinclination to turn himself into a public personality. It's the same approach taken by Liam Mulvihill who as the GAA's ard-stiúrthóir oversaw an era of remarkable modernisation while avoiding the headlines. It seems to work.

The IRFU was once on a par with the FAI as a subject for derision concerning its perceived administrative shortcomings. Its much-derided 'blazers' were a byword for amiable amateurish bungling. Not the least of Browne's achievements has been to earn the IRFU a reputation for omnicompetence. They are the sporting body held up to the others as an example of how things should be done.

Irish rugby has consistently made the right choices in recent times, notably in carrying out the successful redevelopment of the Aviva Stadium. On the field, Joe Schmidt has become the most respected coach in world rugby during his time here, while both South Africa (Rassie Erasmus) and Australia (Michael Cheika) are managed by men who'd previously been in charge of Irish provinces.

The initial revival of Irish fortunes during the noughties, which began under Warren Gatland, led to Triple Crowns under Eddie O'Sullivan and culminated with the Grand Slam for a team managed by Declan Kidney was seen as owing a lot to a Golden Generation. Players like Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara seemed like the kind of irreplaceable talents who come along in a lifetime.

That Ireland have since not just matched but surpassed the achievements of that era suggests that there is a systematic element to our success which makes it replicable. And not just at national level. Contrast the performances of the Irish provinces in the Champions Cup with those of their Welsh and Scottish rivals. There have been seven Irish victories in the history of the competition. Wales has had to content itself with one losing appearance, in the very first final, while no Scottish team has ever made the decider.

This year, Munster, Leinster and Ulster have all reached the quarter-finals. The final fortnight of group action with the Irish teams going six for six said a great deal about the current balance of power in European rugby.

Everything looks rosy but Browne, Schmidt and Irish rugby in general will surely feel that this year is not just replete with opportunity but also fraught with danger. World Cups have generally been disaster areas for Irish rugby, most notably in 2007 when our challenge fell apart so dramatically that not just manager Eddie O'Sullivan but the IRFU itself suffered enormous reputational damage.

At the last finals, with interest at fever pitch, Ireland's quarter-final defeat by Argentina was another massive anti-climax. An injury crisis provided a plausible excuse for that particular eclipse but it seemed to take the team a couple of seasons to recover from the disappointment. With expectations the highest they've ever been another World Cup catastrophe would be the most damaging of all. It could see the forward march of rugby halted.

Browne and the IRFU have not got everything right. The 2003 decision to effectively abolish the Connacht rugby team looks even more ill-judged now than it did at the time. In 'The Sun Shines Bright', a movie by the great American director John Ford, there is a scene where townspeople who'd been prevented from lynching a man by the local judge hold up banners declaring, 'He saved us from ourselves' during a parade in honour of said legal eagle.

You'd hope the IRFU mentally hoist such banners from time to time to thank the thousands of Connacht rugby people who marched against their decision at the time. With rugby broadening its appeal by the year, abandoning the West of Ireland would have been a terrible move, smacking of an elitist Dublin-centric attitude which would not play at all well in the current climate.

That misstep was displayed by the ruthlessness which has characterised the modern IRFU and largely worked in its favour. Gatland's summary dismissal seemed odd at the time yet O'Sullivan undoubtedly moved the team up a notch. When O'Sullivan and Kidney had outlived their use they were jettisoned with little concession to sentiment.

A similar pragmatism has been obvious in Ireland's manipulation of the IRFU's residency rules. The pursuit of Project Players is distasteful to some, myself included. Yet perhaps Browne can simply point to the moment at Twickenham when Bundee Aki burst through the English cover before parting to CJ Stander who slid in for a magnificent try. Should James Lowe oust Keith Earls from the Irish team next year, chances are he'll be forgiven if he scores the same kind of tries in the green jersey as he does for Leinster.

There may be less need of Project Players in the future. Because one of the remarkable things about Ireland's progress to the top of the tree is that it has been achieved while barely scratching the surface in terms of the national population. This is changing. Twenty-year-old Hugh O'Sullivan, who recently came on for Leinster against Wasps and is the younger brother of men who've played football and hurling for Meath, may represent a significant straw in the wind.

Clubs like my own local one, Skibbereen, are producing increasing numbers of players with the talent and ambition to at least get a foothold in professional rugby. There is a large pool of athletic and talented kids from GAA backgrounds now tempted to opt for rugby. The lure of being able to become a professional sportsman is a pull factor. The push factor is that inter-county GAA increasingly requires professional levels of commitment while offering amateur levels of remuneration.

This shift will naturally increase the strength of Irish rugby yet it's safe to say that the traditional fee-paying schools will remain the main engines driving the national team. Rugby, being a far more technically demanding sport than Gaelic football, hurling or soccer, probably requires the intensive coaching these institutions can provide if the potential of young players is to be maximised. From this point of view, Blackrock, Belvedere et al serve the same kind of purpose as the college powerhouses which hone players for the NFL.

The preponderance of players from such schools leads to jibes that rugby is somehow unrepresentative of Irish reality. But this seems a relatively meaningless criticism. For one thing it's increasingly tiresome to see pundits who never lived on a 'Council Estate' and have no intention of spending time on one invoking it as a model of authenticity. When Jack Charlton's team was winning the hearts of the nation few worried that it lacked players from Donnybrook, Ballsbridge and Killiney.

There may be more significant worries for Irish rugby down the line, ones with greater potential to derail it from its central position in the public affections. Recent serious injuries to young players in France graphically illustrate the increased risks posed to players in an era where the average player seems to perpetually grow bigger and stronger. There are also claims about a doping culture in the sport which may be just one high-profile case away from becoming a major issue.

For the moment they've never had it so good. Philip Browne is the monarch of all he surveys.

Irish rugby is the behemoth of Irish sport, favoured to win two Grand Slams in a row for the first time ever, looking forward to a World Cup which is the most eagerly awaited and will be the most followed sporting event in Ireland this year.

In a country where the response to good weather is to (a) wonder when it'll break and (b) worry about the consequences of a rain shortage, this staggering success story almost seems too good to be true.

This year we'll find out if it is.

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