Friday 15 December 2017

'One day Six Nations games will be available to view online via Netflix'

Chief executive of tournament John Feehan is eager to keep 'unique' event evolving, writes Nicola Anderson

Chief executive of the Six Nations John Feehan Photo: Mark Condren
Chief executive of the Six Nations John Feehan Photo: Mark Condren
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Six Nations rugby chief John Feehan envisages a future where games will be available to view online via Netflix.

The Ballsbridge-based chief executive is in a contemplative mood about what changes are down the line for the historic rugby championship.

Fans are holding their breath to see how the new rules of bonus points will change things round this year - but there could be even further developments down the track. Mr Feehan explains how there are constant reviews of the competition to make it more exciting and accessible to greater numbers.

"The whole purpose of the bonus points is to try to score more tries, to make it more of a running game," he says. "Instead of being conservative and happy with going for one or two tries and winning the game, we're hoping they might go for four tries."

Slightly less popular with the travelling fans are the timings of some of the games - such as on Friday nights.

Mr Feehan concedes that it might be slightly inconvenient for some of the travelling fans - but says that with the stadia at full capacity and with one million fans travelling for each match, the only way to grow the game is through TV and internet audiences.

The Six Nations organisers have the ultimate say as to when the games are played and not the broadcasters, he explains.

"People think that television companies demand this or that - but we have the same objective ultimately which is to allow more people to see our championship than would potentially in any other circumstance.

"You can have it played at a time that delivers an audience or one that suits everybody going to the game and literally have tens of millions less people watching it. It's a no-brainer."

At some stage in the near future, he envisages a situation whereby the Six Nations will take its place alongside the likes of 'House of Cards' on the Netflix schedule.

"I don't know how long it will take but I can see it happening. There is nothing to stop them moving into sport."

The bonus of this is that it's such an accessible format. "You just need a connection and you can watch on your phone, laptop or computer."

What keeps people hooked on the Six Nations, which draws greater audiences each and every year, is the sense of the unknown, he believes.

"The championship will always throw up a surprise or two - that's one of the good things about it. The essence of the sport is doubt. When you know the result, it's boring," Mr Feehan says.

Ireland are facing into the competition on the back of one of their most successful campaigns ever - beating all three southern hemisphere teams, including a historic win over New Zealand in Chicago in November, signing their name in the history books with a flamboyant flourish.

Going into this competition, Ireland are "probably not the favourites" he says, with England on an unbeaten run - and he warns that it's going to be "very tough" today in Scotland.

Adamant that his role is purely the business end of rugby, the Six Nations guru is also well-honed in the sport from his earliest days, starting out at the Christian Brothers College in Monkstown, south Dublin - whose motto is 'Fight the Good Fight'. He played with Leinster and Ireland Under 21s, as well as for Trinity, Old Belvedere and Old Wesley.

"I stopped when I was nearly 34, so I had a good blast of it. It was a fantastic time and I made some great friends," he says.

The 53-year-old executive is married with two daughters - with the youngest doing her Leaving Cert this year, while the eldest is studying at Trinity.

Mr Feehan started out working in the marketing industry, for brewers Beaming and Crawford, and worked in a variety of firms before being headhunted to become commercial director at the Six Nations in 2002. Within seven months he had become CEO.

He's happy that the Six Nations is no longer an elitist game.

"Definitely not. The numbers say so," he points out - with the games regularly featuring in RTÉ's top 10 programmes for the year. Effectively you've almost the entire country watching it so in real terms it's no longer an elite sport, it's a universal sport that has taken its place beside Gaelic games and soccer."

He admits that there is an element of fair weather support, given Ireland's recent successes. But he says: "The tide has gone in and gone out and it's never going to go back down to the same level again. There's a much broader range of rugby in Ireland than there was when I was growing up."

Like any Six Nations punter, he loves to watch the games, explaining that every pairing has its own unique flavour. "It's extraordinary."

A request goes out for another cup of tea. The receptionist drops her head to the desk in mock exasperation.

The head honcho at the Six Nations is half-apologetic. "Yes, I probably drink a lot of tea," he admits sheepishly.

So this is the innocent vice that helps to power the machine behind the fizzling excitement of the RBS Six Nations Championship. But the real rocket fuel is something unquantifiable and unique - part history, part tribal, part a sense that anything might happen. And, maybe, just a pinch of magic? "There's no two ways about it," agrees Mr Feehan.

"The whole event is so unique and different. There is nothing like it. It's the history, the sense of ownership, that this is part of who I am and where I've come from."

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