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IRFU decision keeps the wolves from the door - but Irish rugby needs games to return quickly

Rúaidhrí O'Connor



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Irish rugby’s leading figures like Andy Farrell, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are taking 50 per cent paycuts in a bid to save jobs at the IRFU. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Irish rugby’s leading figures like Andy Farrell, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are taking 50 per cent paycuts in a bid to save jobs at the IRFU. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Irish rugby’s leading figures like Andy Farrell, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are taking 50 per cent paycuts in a bid to save jobs at the IRFU. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

We are reminded on a daily basis that there is no immunity to the Covid-19 virus. In economic terms, the same applies to sport.

The measures taken by the IRFU yesterday to safeguard the jobs of everyone working in Irish rugby were a stark reminder of a truth so obvious we all took it for granted. There is no business in sport if the sport itself does not take place.

The last professional rugby match involving an Irish team took place in Port Elizabeth on the south coast of South Africa 20 days ago.

Back then, we speculated about games taking place behind closed doors and rescheduled dates, but as the true horror of the virus became so glaringly apparent, the sport soon took a back seat.

It may only be a game, but rugby is the source of income for the people who were summonsed to the IRFU's conference calls yesterday to learn that their pay would be cut by between 10 and 50 per cent from April until the cash starts flowing again.

This is an organisation that boasted of a record financial year in 2018/19, when they took in €87.5m, thanks in part to the sale of lands in Newlands Cross, Dublin.

The IRFU are known for their prudent approach. Yesterday's move was designed to save jobs.

In a show of leadership, the big earners will be hit hardest. Anyone earning more than €500,000 will take a pay-cut of 50 per cent. Those earning less than €25,000 will not be affected and everyone in between will be dealt with on a sliding scale.

The deal was reached between the union and Rugby Players Ireland and, while the staff will naturally be disappointed at losing out in the short-term, they at least now know their jobs will be safe. The union intend to pay full salaries as soon as possible, while they will reimburse the lost income when they can.

There is a lot riding on a return to action and the hope is that players can return to training in mid-May and complete the curtailed season in July and August.

The summer tour of Australia is now likely to be cancelled, allowing room to complete the Heineken Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14 in the summer.

That, it goes without saying, is dependent on the crisis being over and the restrictions on public gatherings being lifted.

Even if rugby returns, the new economic reality will hit the sport hard in the months that follow.

Sponsors and broadcasters have been hit hard by the pandemic, budgets will be slashed. Supporters may be desperate to get out and go to a game, but their disposable income will be hit by the fallout.

Funding for the sport in Ireland is driven by the men's game and, in particular, the international side.

Already without at least one home international due to the World Cup, the postponement of the Italy game was a substantial blow to the union's coffers. Leinster were due to play Saracens and Munster at the Aviva Stadium in the next few weeks and the loss of those games will cost them more than €1m.

The U-20s' World Cup is off, while their Grand Slam dream is in limbo. The Sevens season will be curtailed, with the Olympic qualification repechage tournament under review.

The club season has been abandoned and across the land clubhouses lie empty, with bar income lost and fundraising activities cancelled.

The union want to assess the full impact of the crisis before deciding if they can find a way of supporting their constituent members, many of whom are in for a tough period financially, given their reliance on local businesses and support.

Some will be understandably unhappy at the decision to void the season, particularly those whose promotion and title ambitions went up in smoke after all of their hard work.

When the dust settles, most will see the bigger picture - even if there is no hope for those misguided, angry souls signing a petition to have the Schools Cup finals played.

Across the country, clubs are reaching out to their members to see if they can help; fundraising for good causes and providing a community hub in a virtual sense, given nobody can come through their gates.

Hopefully their communities can help them get through the dark times when this is all over.

Yesterday's news was a stark reminder that the world of sport we all take for granted is fragile.

The IRFU's decision wasn't taken lightly and was worked out with Rugby Players Ireland. It is designed to safeguard their employees' jobs and ensure that, when rugby returns, Ireland is in a strong position to keep competing across the board.

Deferrals should keep the wolves from the door, but rugby needs games to start again soon.

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