Saturday 25 January 2020

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'IRFU to gain €40m windfall from CVC deal but could cede control in long term'

A British and Irish league looks more and more inevitable, writes Rúaidhrí O'Connor

CVC advisor Mark McCafferty. Photo: Getty Images
CVC advisor Mark McCafferty. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

There are 40 million reasons why the IRFU will welcome the news of CVC Capital's investment in the Guinness PRO14.

The financial windfall will be welcomed on Lansdowne Road where the day-to-day running of their professional operation does not come cheap.

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The €40m will be used to fund the game at both professional and amateur levels, but there will be a price for the union who will lose influence when the private equity firm take their 27 per cent stake in the company and begin to influence the direction in which the professional game is going.

Considering they are also now shareholders in the English Premiership - and believed to be close to a deal to take a stake in the Six Nations - the firm that once controlled Formula One has now become a major player in the rugby market.

And taking into account the size of their investment, they will be seeking a return.

And given the PRO14 - as it is currently constituted - is a development competition for much of the year, they will surely turn their attention to the structure and make-up of the five-nation competition and wonder where the future lies.

That's assuming they don't already have an eye on potential synergies between their new investments.

What better way to grow the market than to combine the two competitions you now have a 27 per cent stake in, to launch a British and Irish league - with or without the Italian and South African presence - to take things into the new decade.

Over the course of the next decade, rugby looks set to re-align from north/south to east/west and it seems increasingly likely that the South Africans will take further steps in this direction as New Zealand and Australia cosy up to Japan and the United States.

A combined Premiership and PRO14 might undermine the Champions Cup, but given the PRO14 and Premiership Rugby are shareholders in the competition, the weakened organisation are unlikely to be able to do anything about it.

Bear in mind that one of CVC's first moves after taking a stake in the Premiership was to appoint the league's chief executive Mark McCafferty as an advisor.

He has kept a low profile since, which is massively out of step with the outspoken figure who was at the vanguard of the English clubs' moves to reduce and relocate the European tournaments a number of years ago.

That project can hardly be deemed an unqualified success, but McCafferty remains an influential figure who will have a clear direction in mind.

There is no doubt the prospect of a stronger league would improve the week-to-week fare on offer to Irish fans with more competitive games between better teams, but it would put more pressure on the playing resources of the Irish system.

It may not be the most interesting competition, but the PRO14 suits the union who can remove their players en bloc for whole sections of the season and not worry too much about how it might affect results.

While the provinces can largely sail through the PRO14, keeping their best players in reserve, the improvement in standard could require the senior internationals to pitch up on a weekly basis which would undermine the player management scheme.

Still, better quality matches would surely improve the players and the expected increase in revenue from television companies would allow the provinces to strengthen.

One solution would be less matches, with the combined division likely to be split into conferences.

That format is all to be worked out, but there have been suggestions that the move could come as early as 2022.

Yesterday's news appears to clear the way for that to happen and CVC's plans will be unveiled in due course.

For now, the injection of cash will be greatly welcomed at the IRFU, even if the price they pay is a little less control over the future of the game and, perhaps, the way they manage their own players down the line.

Irish Independent

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