PEACE in our time. After a month of fraught pay negotiations that threatened Irish rugby’s delicate eco-system, the players and the IRFU finally reached agreement that will carry the game here through until the end of 2020.
When the two parties next meet to discuss the union’s wage bill, it is hoped that the game will be back up and running with some level of normality and that income will again be flowing into Lansdowne Road.
Chief executive Philip Browne has been consistent in his messaging, reiterating time and again that revenues fell off a cliff in late February when rugby ground to a standstill as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Quickly, he got Rugby Players Ireland (RPI) on a call and they worked out a pay deferral scheme that bought the organisation some time.
The agreement, which covered everyone working for the IRFU and the provinces, saw top earners bear the brunt of the temporary cuts on a scale of 10-50 per cent, with those on low incomes protected fully.
Quickly, it became apparent to the union that the deferral scheme would only get them so far. On May 22, Browne held a press conference where he prepared the ground.
"I don’t think we can continue that indefinitely because what you’re building up is a liability month on month on month on month and we can’t have a situation where that continues indefinitely," he said.
A month later, the union moved to bring the deferral scheme to an end.
First, it imposed a four-day week on non-playing employees at Lansdowne Road and across the four provinces in what equated to a 20 per cent pay cut.
Having informed the staff, their next job was to achieve a similar result with players but things got tricky when news of their intentions appeared in a national newspaper before it had been proposed at the negotiating table.
That led to anger among senior players and RPI took the unusual step of issuing a statement expressing it was "very disappointed". That statement appeared on June 14. Agreement was a month away.
The parties met the following Wednesday and would convene each week until they hammered out a deal. On one side of the table, RPI chief executive Simon Keogh was flanked by two senior men from BDO in managing partner Michael Costello and tax expert Ciarán Medlar.
The IRFU’s representatives Browne and director of finance Conor O’Brien agreed to show the players’ representatives their books, so that the full extent of the financial picture could be assessed.
Despite the level of upset about the way the 20 per cent figure hit the headlines, there was an acceptance among players that they would have to take some pain. After all, they live and work among the community and are fully aware of the hardship people have suffered during the pandemic.
However, there was concern that they must protect those on academy and development deals, while the 20 per cent flat-rate cut was viewed as excessive.
Negotiations rumbled on with the delegates meeting on a weekly basis. The deferral agreement expired on June 30, but despite the union’s need to conclude a deal the players wouldn’t be rushed.
By then, the players had returned to training ahead of rugby’s resumption on August 22.
However, the likelihood is that matches will take place either behind closed doors or in front of limited crowds which keeps the pressure on the union coffers. Browne has said that the impact of the remaining Six Nations matches and the November internationals taking place behind closed doors would be a loss of €10-15 million.
Last week, there were positive noises about a deal when the parties broke on Wednesday. They reconvened on Monday and reached a settlement that saw the IRFU settle for an even split of 10 per cent cuts and 10 per cent deferrals until the end of 2020.
Crucially for RPI, players earning below €25,000 per annum will not be affected, with five per cent of the deferred funds potentially subject to a retrospective salary reduction if the situation has not improved.
The situation will be reviewed when the two parties meet again in December.
Relations between the union and RPI have long been cordial as they worked towards the common goal of making Ireland the best country in the world to play rugby in.
However, the crisis tested that bond and threatened to undermine this key pillar of Irish rugby’s strength.
The players showed they understand their value.
The senior men’s game delivers 80 per cent of the organisation’s revenue and that is delivered through young men, with short careers, laying their bodies on the line.
By standing their ground and working out a deal, the players showed that they are far more than just silent partners in Irish rugby’s success and that is a healthy place to be.