Saturday 16 December 2017

Desperate times call for desperate measures and facelift at least closes the gap on England and France

Chief Executive of the IRFU Philip Browne. Photo: Sportsfile
Chief Executive of the IRFU Philip Browne. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The (belated) official confirmation of rugby union's professionalism in 1995 struck as a thunderous earthquake throughout its narrow constituency. The plates beneath have rarely stopped shifting since.

In this part of the world, the rugby fraternity have struggled more than most to keep their feet on solid ground.

For all of the provincial glory in Europe and the successes of its international men and women, Irish rugby still struggles to pay the bills; her Scottish and Welsh neighbours fare little better.

Since its inception in 2001, the trio's Celtic League has undergone more facelifts than Joan Rivers and, to many beyond its rabid fan base, and even many within it, had become just as comical.

Over the last 16 years, the fault lines have shook Celtic Rugby more than most, whether it has been the almost annual change in format, the extinction of so many participants and the regular non-competitive nature of too many of its constituents.

All the while, the leagues in England and France have continued to soar in their popularity and ability to earn revenues that the IRFU and their sister unions, the WRU and SRU, can only dream of.

Businessman Rupert Murdoch. Photo: John Dardis
Businessman Rupert Murdoch. Photo: John Dardis

The bottom line in the professional age is money and, with France raking in almost €100m a year from TV rights, and the English almost €50m, the Guinness PRO12's hitherto €14m remains, well, small beer.

Desperate times call for desperate measures; the speed with which yesterday's hastily-arranged marriage with the two homeless South African franchises was concluded reflected the urgent need to secure a dowry which will hike TV revenues by 50pc.

A drop in the ocean perhaps but still a significant splash for all concerned. And maybe just the start.

Whether the public here buys it is not necessarily the issue. Irish fans will retain the same devotion to their provinces even if the wider audience remain focused on Europe and the Six Nations.

The South Africans will provide the bulk of any new revenue streams and their novel duo may yet prove to be a stalking horse for another to join at a later date or, the Holy Grail for the bean counters, a US franchise who can bring suitcases of dosh to the table.

England and France will not quake in their boots; but New Zealand might as South Africa continue to eye an existence away from the southern hemisphere and within a framework which more suits their time zone, travel and commercial realities.

South Africa cannot yet claim a place in European competition, at least until 2020, but as the tectonic plates ever jostle, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this vista may change by then.

The future of the southern hemisphere club game, with its own bloated and struggling league, is a battle for another day.

But it is relevant in this instance because, at precisely the same point when the Celtic League needs to desperately expand and boost revenues, their southern hemisphere equivalent is contracting. Their loss could yet be our gain, a fairly remarkable turn of events since Rupert Murdoch (left, below) bankrolled the glitzy new world of Super 10 rugby in the mid-1990s.

However, the unalterable fact remains that, until there is a manifest success in adding South African franchises here, not to mention any from the newer markets of the US, Canada, Germany or Georgia, the English and French will still hold financial sway.

The priority for the IRFU, no more than the Welsh and the Scottish, must be to focus on minimising that yawning monetary gap by maximising their own potential as much as practicable.

If that means creating a mathematical riddle of a competition, so be it.

The new PRO14 may make little logistical sense to the average punter but it makes financial sense and that is all that matters to its shareholders.

Many will carp that the product will be diluted by two teams who were barely competitive as it was in their previous home.

Then again, anyone who can claim to have been enthused by a competition which already houses two Italian no-hopers and the hitherto limp presence of Dragons and Edinburgh must be deluded souls indeed.

Zebre nearly became the latest to drop out of the league last month until the Italian union stepped in to effectively bankroll the outfit.

A PRO14 may seem like a dog's breakfast to some but the menu is no less palatable than the many which preceded it. As IRFU chief executive Philip Browne noted this summer, doing nothing with the PRO12 in the long-term is arguably the greatest risk. Even a drowning man must clutch at a passing straw. For now, this is about treading water.

The IRFU can do their bit to help, too, as they have not been entirely guiltless when it comes to allowing too many regular-season games to become too uncompetitive, particularly when high-profile interprovincial derbies are shorn of their international stars.

Replicating what the Welsh do by staging double-headers in the Aviva could help to restore some measure of wider interest in a much-maligned competition which only ever catches fire during its knock-out death throes.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport