Thursday 23 May 2019

Neil Francis: Touring has nothing to do with men or women – it all just comes down to making money

Irish Women's team ahead of Six Nations Rugby Championship match against England
Irish Women's team ahead of Six Nations Rugby Championship match against England
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

During this year's Six Nations, I popped in to pick up my accreditation in the ever-friendly and efficient IRFU offices in Lansdowne.

In the envelope with the match ticket was a plastic transparent sleeve with a stringy thing attached in which you place your ticket before wrapping it around your neck - like a Sam Cane tackle.

Just as I was leaving the young fella in the office said to me: "Bring that back for the Welsh game." "The ticket?" I asked. "No! The plastic holder." Either the IRFU have become environmentally aware or the bean counters had issued a decree! Plastic recycling is a big issue but so is money.

I did the maths on the way to the stadium - say 25c per plastic holder by 200 journalists and media is €50 by three home games - that's a saving of €150. Tesco! Every little helps. Okay, I am only joking but in the IRFU's financial report for the year ended April 30, 2017, they lost €2.795m - that's a lot of plastic holders.

Last week it was announced that the RA (Rugby Australia) had issued an invitation for our women's national team to come out to Australia and play three Tests at the same venue as the men. The RA said that as an incentive they would pay some of Ireland's accommodation costs.

The IRFU refused the invitation and naturally there was a strong reaction to that news. The IRFU stated that the tour "was not in line with IRFU strategy at the moment".

Let us just consider what this really means.

Let's just say that the idea would be for the women's side to piggy-back the men's side. What would that mean? It would mean a match-day squad of 23 plus an additional 10 players for rotation, injury, form and blooding new players. You would also need coaching, management and medical staff of close to 10 people. It's a big undertaking - 43 people.

If the men flew business class then the women would also have to fly business class - it's mandated by World Rugby. Emirates were charging €4,958 a head to Sydney - 43 people by €5,000 that's €215,000. Let's round it down to €200k, just to get to Australia and back.

The air fare is only part of the cost and even though the Aussies said they would help with the accommodation, the meter is running once the squad turn up in Dublin prior to departure.

The kernel of the issue here is the women are amateur. They feel disappointed because they don't get to go and show their stuff when there was an invitation. Australia is as good a place to go for a tour in the world. They don't get to go!

The reason why Ireland's women's senior XV are being treated like second-class citizens is not because they are women but because they are amateur. Nobody doubts the effort and commitment given by the women. They train and play as hard and as professionally as they can within the structures of their working lives. The fact is that professionalism or being professional is not about training extensively or trying to be the best at the game or looking for continuous improvement. The professional game in essence is about the generation of cash - ticket sales, TV rights, sponsorship, diverse revenue streams and merchandising.

The women can train 365 days a year and be the best in the world but unless they are generating large-scale revenues over and above what it costs to maintain them, then they are a cost.

Let's go back to the invitation/tour. If all of the women's team work, then is it fair and equitable to ask for more time off than they have already had this year? More unpaid leave! Four weeks in Australia, who pays for that though? What are daily subsistence payments per diem? Say €100 per day - that's €120,000. What about internal flights in Australia? What about logistics, insurance, food, medical etc? All I'm trying to do here is come to a figure as to what it would cost the IRFU to send the women's squad to Australia for four weeks - would €11,500 per person be close enough? All in, €500,000 - I could be shy or I could be over .

"Not in line with IRFU strategy at the moment" means we lost €2.795m last year and we can't afford to spend €500k sending the women's team to Australia.

Let's put it another way. I played in the Sydney rugby competition years ago. The clubs are still strong in the urban areas and lots of people still play amateur rugby in Australia. Ireland have a men's international clubs team that have played against England, France and Scotland in the last couple of years. International amateur rugby. Australia, I bet, could field a formidable men's amateur international rugby team.

If any invitation came over for our men's amateurs team to undertake a three-Test tour at the same time as the pros - the answer would be "that it was not in line with IRFU strategy at the moment". They can't afford to send them either. The IRFU is charged with developing the game in this country. Correctly, their energies are almost entirely focused on the men's professional game. The amateur game, either club or representative, men's or women's, is not even close to being a priority - primarily because they do not generate sustainable income. They cost money.

The amateur game is worse than a zero-sum game because it does not matter what you invest in it or the fact that your men's or women's teams could beat all-comers 100-0. They don't produce income and they cost money. The IRFU will only spend what is appropriate to fund those levels. Sad fact of life but true.

One of the things that I found incredible was that RA volunteered to help pay for the women's team's accommodation. Maybe they had a sponsorship deal. RA are hopelessly insolvent, they were on the verge of bankruptcy a year ago.

They had to disband the Western Force franchise in Perth the season before last and the Melbourne Rebels were also on the chopping block. Their income-generating franchises were not producing enough income and the ARU had to subvent them to the point of bankruptcy. RA were battling at every turn for economic viability but yet 'we will put you all up for four weeks free of charge'.

The current series is all about reciprocation. Ireland's squad are tired but they are a big draw in Australia - full houses in Brisbane and Sydney, strong television deals, merchandising and sponsorship - badly-needed revenue - this pays for the superstructure of the game. These revenues drive the machine and the amateur brothers and sisters are superfluous and their wants and needs are not at any stage in line with any professional rugby union - not at the moment, nor any time in the future. Sorry!

Irish Independent

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