Wednesday 23 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'We got £20 a day for the first Rugby World Cup'

Neil Francis in action for the Ireland rugby team in 1996
Neil Francis in action for the Ireland rugby team in 1996
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A TRANQUIL gathering in the Scottish highlands is disturbed as a small boy falls into the icy waters of a nearby river. There are shrieks as the boy is carried away towards a waterfall and certain death. Before anyone can even think, a young man dives in and swims heroically for the toddler. Just as it seems that the waterfall is about to take him, the hero lunges and grabs the child by the scruff of the neck. He scrambles for an outlying rock right on the edge of the waterfall. Against all odds, he holds on until they can both be pulled to safety. Once back on land, the hero returns the child to his grandfather. The old man turns to the rescuer and points to the child's head: "He had a hat..."

Talk to anyone who represented Ireland before 1995 and they will have a dozen stories to tell about the legendary meanness of the IRFU back then. A grasping, penny-pinching collection of curmudgeons.

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One of my favourites was a tour of Canada and the USA in 1989. International Rugby Board (IRB) rules dictated that if a tour lasted more than 21 days the players should receive £20 per day as a communication allowance. A simple solution was devised - have a 20-day tour instead. Problem solved. You did not have to pay the rabble anything.

It nearly came unstuck at JFK as our aircraft had engine problems and the prospect of another riotous day in New York and some communication allowance back-pay (£420) multiplied by 30 players would have been ruinous (£12,600). That amount doesn't even add up to a win bonus for a current Test match player.

We all had a laugh in the departure lounge impersonating those who held the purse strings - "I don't care if they all end up in the Atlantic, get that f**king plane into the air."

Prior to that tour I had played in the first World Cup in 1987. We were due in New Zealand and Australia for the guts of six weeks - £20 a day. Woohoo!

The IRB weren't much more flaithulach than the IRFU and the accommodation in some of the match locations wasn't great. Ireland stayed at a two-star facility in Sydney where the Australian leader of the Liberal party died of a heart attack while in flagrante delicto. Classy. I suppose the IRB weren't to know.

When Australia beat us in the quarter-final, the French were hurdled into the same lodgings. They were dressed in deep blue denim Yves St Laurent jackets, Gauloises hanging from their lips, slack-jawed and incredulous at the kennels they were about to be put into. "C'est quoi ca? (I believe that's French for WTF!) I nodded to Laurent Rodriguez. "Not exactly the Elysees Palace, but it's homely."

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I stayed on in Sydney and joined Manly Rugby Club where I was paid to play. The first 'pay packet' was double the entire communication allowance for the World Cup. Amateur rugby players were being paid all over the world. The IRB would, I thought, do well to keep all the sheep corralled in the pen.

Coming up to the 1995 World Cup, the game was up. Australian media magnates Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch saw the potential in rugby union and, given that England and France were already semi-pro and the entire Southern Hemisphere had been in that state for years, the sham had to end. Ireland and Scotland, like King Canute and his little brother, put up stout resistance for about five minutes.

At the 1995 World Cup, we did get paid. It was £1,100 after tax, if I remember correctly. I have memories of going to a shopping centre in Jo'burg and selling Irish T-shirts and hats on the concourse. This was somebody else's notion of professionalism and commercial opportunities. I didn't want the money that badly, and when several All Blacks walked by our stand they exploded with laughter. I went off for a coffee and a sticky bun with Gary Halpin and stayed in the cafe until it was time to come back and collect all the unsold stock. We lost a fortune.

After two seasons of the Heineken Cup, where a small stipend was handed over, I thought whither the IRFU and its propensity to fund what was coming down the line.

Recalling this piqued my interest into how the organisation actually performed financially back in 1995. The annual report made me chuckle. Reinstatement of players, strict rules on amateurism, kit advertising, qualification of players and players' allowances and compensation. The personal and communication allowance had been increased from £22 to £25. A home run! It knocked that ball clean out of the stadium.

Meanwhile, the IRFU posted a robust set of figures for the year ending May 31, 1995. Turnover hit £4.9m and it posted a retained surplus of £2.2m for the year. The balance sheet was very healthy, with net assets of £22m and retained union funds a very respectable £12.4m. Twenty-day tours? The miserable bastards...

In its 2018/19 annual accounts, the IRFU posted turnover of €87.5m, a very creditable performance, and posted a profit of €3.2m. This year was significant in that the IRFU sold a site it owned in Newlands Cross and netted €24m. Those funds went to boost the IRFU's retained earnings on the balance sheet to just under €120m. It is a bona fide financial juggernaut. It compares favourably with the GAA, which posted a turnover of €106m, a gross profit before redistribution of €41m and a bottom line of €2.7m. Retained earnings are stated at €135m and total assets at €195m.

Is Fort Knox in Kentucky or Jones' Road? The difference between the Union and the Association is that the latter doesn't pay its players... yet.

While the IRFU administers for the entirety of the game, the professional game is responsible for 81pc of its turnover and 68pc of expenditure. Those ratios are manageable for the time being.

It is interesting to note that despite turnover up to €87.5m, the IRFU, after adjustments for currency and inflation, was making more money back in the 1990s than it is now.

The pro game eats up the dough - no more so when the World Cup comes around.

In the 2015 World Cup, the IRFU had an incentive structure for the Ireland team. All players were to receive €40,000 for making the squad and an additional €100,000 each if they won the competition. A total liability of €4.34m. However, the IRFU would be receiving north of €10m for the team's participation in that World Cup. If the team wins the World Cup this year, the word is that the incentive has increased by 20pc, which would leave the players €160,000 richer, without having to sell T-shirts in shopping centres.

The All Blacks will get €67,000 each if they retain their trophy. But it is the Brexitlanders who have most to play for. If England win the World Cup each of their players will earn €275,000 from a pot of €14.5m.

Yeah... £1,100 after tax for taking the field against Jonah Lomu. A changed landscape. They still don't like handing it over, though!

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