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Finbarr Crowley pays price for hard line


'If you looked at the report from the union’s AGM last weekend, you’d conclude that we’re in decent shape'

'If you looked at the report from the union’s AGM last weekend, you’d conclude that we’re in decent shape'

Finbarr Crowley

Finbarr Crowley


'If you looked at the report from the union’s AGM last weekend, you’d conclude that we’re in decent shape'

The 20th anniversary of that momentous IRB meeting in Paris rolls around on Wednesday. Two decades of professional rugby, and still so much to figure out.

In Ireland we have come a long way since that anguished scene as our IRFU administrators had to have their fingers prized away from the handles of amateurism. It was doomsday stuff.

If you looked at the report from the union's annual general meeting last weekend however you'd conclude that we're in decent shape: good numbers playing the game across the board; a very attractive shop window thanks to the senior team and their successive Six Nations titles; and in the back office a very healthy operating surplus of €8.7m to report.

At that same annual meeting, however, we got evidence of how far we still have to travel to take the game onto the right road. In this parish we remember the political assassination of Leinster's Roly Meates at a union agm in 1992 as being a big deal. And to the rugby constituency at the time, it was. That constituency has changed utterly, however, and most of the current crew have more interest in the day-to-day travails of the Kardashians than in those who run rugby in this country.

Even so, they should be mindful that the shafting last weekend of Finbarr Crowley, which made the Meates affair look like a schoolyard tussle, has ramifications for how our rugby teams perform. If on the field it's a game of small margins, then off it it's about getting the right governance in your organisation to give you the best chance of making those margins. What happened at the agm was a long way from good governance.

For the last six years Crowley has been chairman of the IRFU's management committee, the body which makes all the big decisions in Irish rugby. Along with treasurer Tom Grace, he has been the most influential figure in the union over that period. Next time you're passing the IRFU office on Lansdowne Road, check out the car parking available out front. There are two spaces: one for the chairman of the management committee; the other for the treasurer, even though neither man is based in that office.

With Crowley's management term coming to a close this summer his plan was to move onto the fairground attraction that is the presidents' merry go round - or the Augusta Syndrome, as we call it: the singular pursuit of the green jacket. To that end he was proposed unanimously by the officers of the union, and endorsed by the IRFU committee. From there it should have been a seamless transition to the role of junior vice president, and onwards and upwards to the top job for season 2017/'18. Instead that honour will now fall to Phil Orr, who was voted in from the floor ahead of Crowley.

In Godfather speak, Crowley is sleeping with the fishes. Why he is at the bottom of the ocean tells us something about the man himself, and much more about the IRFU's structure and practices. Those who know Finbarr Crowley will not be surprised that sympathy for him is not overflowing following his being dumped at the agm. When it came to making an omelette he broke a lot of eggs, though that didn't appear to concern him unduly.

In his union role, however, it would have been impossible to be everyone's pal. While his close ally Grace was busy tightening belts left, right and centre, Crowley was embarked on a course that would remove as much voting power as possible from those who weren't at the centre of things. As an ideal, this made sense. The strategy of 'head down and charge on', however, was unsuccessful.

A coterie of past presidents' noses were well out of joint at the direction the union was taking. The IRFU seems to be unique in the modern rugby world in the love it affords this group. Remarkably, for example, they travel to all home and away games in the Six Nations. When the cuts came during the recession the length of each trip was reduced, which did nothing to promote Crowley or Grace's popularity with the group.

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Despite the cutbacks, their entitlements are as follows: two complimentary tickets to the IRFU box for life, plus the option to buy six category one tickets. We have been to the very same box for media conferences. It is very nice. The trustees, of whom there are four, get an extra freebie, plus options on seven category one tickets. Serving this constituency involves the IRFU passing up a potential €1.3m if the tickets were sold at 10-year package prices. The cuts, incidentally, involved reducing the hotel overnights from three to two for Six Nations games. As wives (who travel at their own/partner's expense) are not allowed to attend the union dinner on the night before the game - it's a man thing - the IRFU picks up the tab for their own chow down, hosted by the president's wife.

In keeping with the lunacy attending this jamboree, the power enjoyed by the past presidents beggars belief. In England for example, when a president hands back his chain of office at tenure's end, they thank him kindly and offer him a form that he can use to buy two tickets to future internationals. And they tell him that he is welcome to attend the agm, but it will be as an observer only.

On Planet Ireland, however, the past presidents enjoy voting rights as part of the IRFU council in perpetuity. Across town in Croke Park the past presidents of the GAA shuffle off the voting scene a year after leaving office. With the IRFU it's the gift that keeps on giving.

It was the bulk of this group - a voting lobby with power greater than Leinster and Munster representatives combined - who voted Crowley down. And Billy Glynn, president of the union three seasons ago, rode point with the message.

"Over the last six to 12 months long-standing personal relationships between people in this room have been torn apart as the result of the manner in which the process to bring about changes in the laws of this union have been allowed to become flawed and mismanaged," he told the other members of the IRFU council.

"This has become the most divisive issue that I have ever experienced in Irish rugby. We did not deserve this. Those relationships were torn apart without due regard for the consequences. It will take time to repair the damage done. It is our responsibility to put in place people who are best able to rebuild those relationships and repair the damage done."

The perceived damage focused on a couple of areas. First there was a working party established last year to review governance - an alarm bell for the PPs - and at the same time a move was made by the union committee to have the chairman of the management committee appointed by them, and not the agm, and to change the way Ireland is represented on World Rugby (formerly the International Rugby Board).

Heretofore two representatives were elected from the honorary ranks, at the agm, to represent us on the world stage. The proposal was to swap one of those two with chief executive Philip Browne. This is the trend around the world with the Sanzar nations, plus Scotland and Italy in Europe - with Wales definitely, and England likely, to follow - having already gone down this route. It's not unlike the standard drill in the diplomatic world where the civil servant sits beside the minister and feeds him lines.

If this seems a no-brainer then you ignore the historical prejudice of the situation where elected representatives were seen as superior to the hired help. Browne may be the ultimate steady hand on the tiller, but he's still a hired one. Moreover, putting this appointment into the hands of the management committee was another limb being cut off from the union council.

Making this move required a change in the IRFU's constitution. The trustees were consulted and wanted a couple of alterations to the proposal, but by the time the dust had settled on those, the tom toms were already beating around the provinces. When it came to the required egm in July, to vote in the changes, Crowley could hear the mood music and withdrew the motion.

Some were unhappy at the way Peter Boyle, who has been a World Rugby representative since 2004, was to be sacrificed to make way. The rumblings of discontent were audible by the time the agm came around. The preparatory work was all done, and Phil Orr was ready and waiting to step forward when Crowley had been knocked back. While Crowley had been the obvious casualty, it didn't sit too well with Philip Browne, who had just seen the apple cart overturned.

"No organisation can stand still in terms of its governance, which has to be under constant review," he says. "And any organisation that thinks it can stand still on that perspective will go backwards. We have to have a governance that is fit for purpose, that not only allows us to deliver the game at grassroots level but also allows us to run the business end of the game at professional level. And we've been striving to try and do that over the years with success, or lack of success, depending on your perspective. Those are the facts."

It will be interesting to see how Browne, and Declan Madden - the man who succeeds Crowley on the management committee - pick up the ball now and run with it. As a supporter of change Browne has had his eye wiped.

Either way, Browne and Madden have a dilemma on their hands. Christmas is coming and the turkeys have already voted overwhelmingly for the New Year. What happens now to the pace of change will keep us all intrigued.