IRFU eye €2.5m 'home' boost
Huge windfall if provinces secure quarter-finals on Irish soil
Almost €2.5m is at stake for Irish rugby this weekend as the four provinces go in search of European progress.
With Ulster and Munster safely through to the quarter-finals, Leinster need to beat the Ospreys to book their place and Connacht remain in with an outside shot of reaching the last eight, with a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup still up for grabs as they travel to London to face Saracens.
While getting three provinces through to the last eight is believed to be worth €1.2m to the IRFU, the real bonanza would come from securing home quarter-finals, with Ulster the most likely to nail one if they can hold off Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.
The Union is running a deficit budget this season after disappointing five- and 10-year ticket sales for the Aviva Stadium, while it is under pressure to retain its biggest players, with French interest at an all-time high as the prospect of Jamie Heaslip joining Toulon increased further amid reports his representatives are set for further talks with the European champions.
In this difficult financial climate, it is a case of the more home quarter-finals the better for the IRFU, who will bank around €800,000 in prize money from the qualification of Ulster and Munster -- progress for Leinster or Connacht would bring that figure to €1.2m.
As the two lowest-ranked pool leaders, Munster and Leinster are currently set for tricky visits to France but also have a major financial incentive for gaining a home quarter-final.
Munster, who lost €650,000 last season, could generate €150,000 in ticket sales and hospitality benefits if they could stage their last-eight game at Thomond Park, while the IRFU would pick up an estimated €200,000 if Limerick could host a game.
If Leinster could pull off a remarkable turnaround and jump up the rankings table, then there could be a major pay-off for the branch and the Union of around €350,000 each if they could host the game at Lansdowne Road.
And, if they can pull off a result at Welford Road, Ulster would host their quarter-final at the refurbished Ravenhill, which is due for completion just in time for April and would be worth a similar figure to Munster after the €17.6m redevelopment of the Belfast stadium that will bring its capacity to 18,000 with a range of new corporate facilities.
All the provinces would reap commercial benefits such as merchandise sales on top of the prize money and gate receipts that would take the figure over the €2.5m mark.
Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt is set to name an extended squad for the Six Nations and the Ireland Wolfhounds game against England Saxons today.
The Ireland coach is boosted by the return from injury of a host of players, including Rory Best, Cian Healy and Conor Murray, although it remains to be seen if Simon Zebo can force his way back in after coming back from a broken foot.
Tommy Bowe is unlikely to feature for Ulster this weekend, meaning he will have not played for the province since injuring his groin against New Zealand in November when he goes into camp. Donnacha Ryan returned to Munster training yesterday and looks set to be fit for the Six Nations, which kicks off against Scotland on February 2.
Ireland pair Declan Fitzpatrick and Craig Gilroy are also likely to be out of Ulster's trip to Leicester due to concussion, with the winger also breaking his nose during the second half of Friday's win over Montpellier.