Sport Rugby

Friday 24 November 2017

Money making month

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If someone had told me, or anyone of my generation, that a day would come when the IRFU would stand up in public and admit to getting something wrong, it would have been time for the white coat and cuckoo's nest. The Union have never done humility or remorse. To err is not part of the Lansdowne Road style.

The IRFU have long done things their way, particularly prior to professionalism. Since the game went open there has been -- under CEO Philip Browne -- a gradual change in modus operandi and by extension a qualified change in public perception. The Union have by and large handled the shift to professionalism well.

Yet that ingrained undercurrent still exists. IRFU arrogance and insensitivity towards those who make the organisation tick re-emerged in relation to ticket pricing and the draconian demands on distribution.

The Celtic Tiger is a creature of the dim and distant past -- except, it would appear, in Lansdowne Road. To be fair to Browne, he fronted up on behalf of the Union and took it on the chin. In terms of PR it was the only rational call.

In admitting fallibility -- still difficult for those of us of a certain age to comprehend -- the IRFU held up their hands (what else could they do?) and gave a commitment that they would undertake a post-November root-and-branch examination.

While that is to be welcomed, the time has come for a Test schedule re-assessment to extend much further than that. You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

The November series in the northern hemisphere, much like the June equivalent down south, is a pure money-making month and let no one pretend otherwise. The public have cottoned on and slowly, but surely, interest has eroded. Familiarity has bred contempt -- and with it empty seats.

When the Springboks run out at Lansdowne today, it will be their fourth autumn visit to Dublin in six years. Bear in mind that before 2004, they had visited these shores just nine times.

Those who turn up today, having paid top euro, will be treated to a typically full-blooded Ireland/Springbok affair, but equally they recognise an impostor for what it is. With due respect to the golden generation, a win today will make it four Irish wins over South Africa on the bounce -- yet in 16 previous attempts since 1906 we had beaten them just once.

Is that not revealing enough? For various reasons, mainly injury, the Boks will field an understrength side today. I agree with Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal's assertion that "there is no such thing as a weak Boks team", but relative to what we could face in the World Cup knockout stages next year, it is not the real McCoy.


Even allowing for that, if the reigning world champions in our own spankingly new back yard cannot sell out then, New Zealand and England apart, what chance have the rest? Reducing ticket prices to a more realistic pitch would certainly help, but the fundamental problem goes so much deeper than that. Test rugby has already reached overkill levels. The goose that laid the golden egg is being well and truly slaughtered.

Even New Zealand, when we eventually beat them, and England may lose that aura of special interest.

It is beyond dispute that the June and November Tests are essential to running the professional game. They provide the fuel to keep the engine running. But there has to be another, more meaningful way. A return to the touring of old would engender far greater interest. Instead of a major touring team (as in the case of South Africa) arriving on a Thursday and departing within 24 hours of the final whistle, wouldn't it be far more appealing to spend a significant period of time in just one country?

Surely a four-to-five-week schedule -- embracing matches against all four provinces (guaranteed sell-outs), plus games against the Combined Universities (who beat South Africa before Ireland back in 1965), Ireland 'A' or Wolfhounds Selections -- culminating in a one or two-match Test series, makes far greater practical sense.

It would allow the Irish public to familiarise themselves with the touring squad -- mega-stars in their own country perhaps, but relatively anonymous here.

And it would represent a chance for the tourists to embrace the culture of another country instead of being subjected to the identikit hotel experience the length and breadth of the planet.

Were this ticket fiasco to prove the catalyst for change, that would be no bad thing. However, for the moment, all thoughts are focused firmly on the Aviva.

The absences of Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O'Leary are as significant to Ireland as the losses of a dozen front-liners are to the Boks, given the sides' relative strength in depth.

I'd love to see how the Boks have developed since a Tri Nations in which they badly trailed the other two in terms of results and ambition. But given their injury list and the lack of preparation time they've had -- not helped by last week's Currie Cup final -- they are likely to rely heavily on their pack today.

The Boks don't do compromise and, irrespective of personnel, the plan of action will be no different at the Aviva.

There has been much reference made in the Irish camp over the past few days to bullying. Declan Kidney normally plays his tactical cards ever so close to his chest, but it takes little by way of Mystic Meg powers to suggest that the home pack is primed to meet South African physicality with the Irish boot, bite and bollock equivalent.

World Cup experimentation -- either in terms of personnel or style of play -- will be the last thing on the minds of anyone involved today. This one is about winning, about restoring confidence. Defeat for one or other and a bleak few weeks could lie ahead.

Never have I underestimated South Africa and despite all the main advantages, not least the venue, favouring Ireland, it looks like it will come down to who wants it more. My money is on Ireland, but it may not be pretty.

The ground is unlikely to be full to capacity, while most disappointingly of all, the world champions will have scarcely enough time to take it all in. Sometimes the old ways are still the best.

Verdict: Ireland by six.

Irish Independent

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