Thursday 25 April 2019

The best of times, the worst of times

Never before have the fortunes of our two sets of boys in green been so contrasting - and it's not just on the pitch that Ireland's rugby and soccer teams are in different leagues

Jacob Stockdale'a try against the All Blacks at the Aviva on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Jacob Stockdale'a try against the All Blacks at the Aviva on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Agony for soccer boss Martin O'Neill. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
John Meagher

John Meagher

On Monday morning, John Trainor turned up at the office and fielded one phone call after the next. His phone didn't stop ringing all day. The calls were from brand managers wondering just how they could get their company on to the Irish rugby bandwagon.

The sports-sponsorship specialist had never seen anything like it before.

"It's been one of the busiest weeks we've had in terms of phone calls," Trainor, owner of Onside Sponsorship, tells Review. "So many brands have expressed an interest in seeing if there's an opportunity in rugby. And who could blame them?"

That day was also a busy one for Padraig Power, the commercial director of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).

Agony for soccer boss Martin O'Neill. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Agony for soccer boss Martin O'Neill. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"There's huge interest in 10-year ticket packages," he says, "and I'd be lying if I said we didn't get an awful lot of enquiries on Monday. It was definitely above normal."

At the start of this week, just about everyone had an opinion on the Irish rugby team. On Saturday evening, at a raucous Aviva Stadium, they had beaten world champions New Zealand at home for the first time ever and had done it in thrilling fashion.

Already ranked the world's second best team, Joe Schmidt's side capped off a quite extraordinary year - surely the best that Irish rugby has ever experienced, thanks to a Grand Slam win - only the third ever for Ireland - and double provincial glory for Leinster.

And it could be an even better year in 2019 with the prospect of the Rugby World Cup hovering on the horizon. For the first time, an Irish side will be among the favourites to win it. A nation will hold its breath like never before.

If Padraig Power had a very busy week adding scores of new people to the already long waiting lists for five and 10-year tickets, as well corporate-box packages, his counterpart at the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) won't have had much to cheer about. Rarely has the oft-quoted Charles Dickens line "the best of times, the worst of times" been more apt when describing the fortunes of the two sets of boys in green. If the rugby team were sweeping all before them, the football side were lurching from one crisis to the next.

They failed to muster a single shot on target against Denmark during Monday night's dismal scoreless draw - their opponents, by contrast, rained down shots on Darren Randolph's goal - and it was even more dispiriting on the previous Thursday when they looked decidedly second best in a friendly against Northern Ireland at the Aviva.

After failing to win a single competitive match this calendar year, manager Martin O'Neill and assistant Roy Keane resigned on Tuesday. Such was the poverty of the performances of their team since the highs of the Euros in the summer of 2016 that there was widespread relief at news of their departure, and a hope that someone new could to be found to take Irish football forward, insurmountable a task as that may appear now.

If the rugby side has completely eclipsed their round-ball counterparts on the pitch, they've truly trounced them off it. In 2017, the IRFU had a turnover of €87m. The FAI figure was €49m. They are numbers that, to the uninitiated, would suggest that it's rugby, rather than football, that's the world's most popular game.

Back in 2007, the FAI's annual turnover was €45m and the IRFU's was €48m. In the space of a decade, the former's numbers went up by just 9pc while the latter's increased by a whopping 82pc. And it's a gap that's set to widen unless a new football manager can do something special with a limited set of players.

What's unquestionable, John Trainor says, is how so much of the available sponsorship spend has migrated from football to rugby in recent years.

"Every year we ask the sponsorship managers what sports they see as capable of most growth and for a while now, more than twice as many see rugby as the sport that you invest in. At the moment, it's tied with the GAA at 32pc in terms of where you'd most want to spend your money. Soccer is at 14pc. That's a really significant difference."

Trainor says interest in rugby has jumped massively in a decade. "You'd have interest levels [among the general population] of maybe 25pc to 30pc 10 years ago, but now our studies have shown that it's close to two-thirds [who say they are invested in rugby]. That's a huge change and they've managed to attract blue-chip sponsors - there's about 20 brands aligned to the national team, including some of the biggest in the country such as Vodafone, Guinness, Aer Lingus and Aldi."

Padraig Power will be in the IRFU job 19 years next month and he says the change in fortunes for rugby has been extraordinary. "There's no doubt that Irish rugby is on a high and very popular at the moment - being number two in the world is a wonderful place to be," he says. "We would unashamedly see the Irish rugby team as the best sports marketing platform for brands to connect with in this country.

"And we have inherent advantages over soccer - we have a fixtures list for the next 10, 20 years where we know for sure that we have Six Nations in the spring and the Guinness series in November, so it's very easy to plan around activations when we have that.

"And, of course, we have the international dimension - and that helps set us apart from the GAA."

One branding expert who has worked closely with brands connected to both the IRFU and FAI is unequivocal about which sport is king when it comes to corporate Ireland today.

"It's rugby all the way," he says. "Soccer isn't even in the ballpark, and the brands associated with soccer will have been rueing their luck over the past two years.

"You'd be sickened if you worked in branding for Three. [The mobile phone firm were jersey sponsors of the Irish rugby team before switching to football]. Not only are they not associated with this phenomenal bunch of winners, but they were replaced by a rival [Vodafone] who've leveraged their sponsorship with the IRFU brilliantly.

"The 'Team of Us' tag is a master stroke and has connected with the fans in a really positive way."

This sponsorship consultant believes the short-to-medium term picture is not a rosy one for football. "Part of the problem is the lack of star-power. Since Robbie Keane retired, there's nobody in the squad that really transcends his sport - maybe Seamus Coleman, at a push. The young kid, [Michael] Obafemi [who made his international debut against Denmark this week], could do very well if he makes an impression, but other than that, there's nobody to get excited about.

"It's so different with the rugby. They've stars everywhere - whether its long-established players like [Johnny] Sexton, [Peter] O'Mahony or [Rob] Kearney or really exciting new talent like [Jordan] Larmour, [Joey] Carbery and, especially, [Jacob] Stockdale, who's really captured the imagination thanks to that try against the All Blacks and the way he played in the Six Nations."

He says the "sentiment" directed towards both sports could hardly be more different.

"Taking the hardcore support base out and there's complete apathy about the soccer team. If they had been doing well, you'd have a sell-out Aviva for the match against Northern Ireland, but there were only about 30,000 there and the atmosphere was flat. Forty-eight hours later and the atmosphere was as good as I've ever seen it - whether we're talking Aviva or old Lansdowne Road."

For ex-Ireland international rugby player-turned-broadcaster Alan Quinlan, the strides rugby has made into the national consciousness have been scarcely believable.

"You always had that cohort of rugby people who knew the game inside out and whose interest went from club to provincial to international level," he says, "but, outside of that, it was just a handful of games the national side would play in a year that would interest the rest.

"Now, there's huge interest - and from people who've never played the game or have a connection with it, and it's great to see."

The Newstalk broadcaster says there's a compelling - and simple - reason why Irish rugby has become so adored among the wider populace.

"They're winners and they give us a lift. That's what sport has always done. People like success. I'm a Liverpool fan because I grew up in a time when they were hugely successful. It's the same with kids today - it's rugby jerseys they want from their parents. My boy and his friends are all like that - they love to watch it [rugby] and they get excited to see their heroes.

"Success captures the imagination of people and we Irish love our sport. It's long been an important part of Irish culture. I come from a GAA county [Tipperary] and the GAA has long been embedded there.

"But rugby has become a big deal there, too, over the past 10 or 20 years. I saw it in Munster when we won the Heineken Cup in 2006 and again in 2008. You'd have children wearing the jersey all of a sudden and then it just becomes normal."

Quinlan believes the IRFU has done a "wonderful job" in marketing the game. "Even though it's rough and physical on the field, it's seen as clean-living and full of role models. Ninety nine per cent of rugby players are very grounded and hard-working and that resonates with people."

Despite the lull that football finds itself in today, John Trainor is keen to point out that success and failure are cyclical. It was only two years ago when the nation was captivated by Euro 2016, that famous victory over Italy and Robbie Brady's celebrated goal. Despite the glories in Irish rugby in 2018, there have been low points in the recent past, too - and there's a special sort of pressure with being one of the world's best: there's much further to fall when the perch is lofty.

"Soccer is in a challenging period but by ­tracking consumer sentiment over time, these dips do happen, and they can be quite linear," he says Things like the English Premier League will keep soccer lit and will keep people satisfied."

But he believes there is one aspect in which football will never be able to compete with rugby. "The all-island aspect of rugby resonates with people in this time of Brexit," he says.

"The team taking one step forward during the Haka ended up being interpreted by some as to how we [as Ireland, north and south] would stand up to Brexit. The Irish rugby team offer this feeling of inclusivity and belonging that few others can emulate."

It's a sentiment echoed by the brand consultant quoted earlier. "One of the few talking points after the soccer game against Northern Ireland was the booing of the national anthems. It got an awful lot of media attention and it was all over social media.

"The soccer itself seemed secondary to all that, but then there have been negative side-stories all year. Whether it was Roy Keane falling out with players or the toing and froing over Declan Rice [the London-born player who has yet to declare for either Ireland or England], there was one controversy after the next and there was practically nothing to cheer on the pitch."

Quinlan, meanwhile, may be delighted about the prominence that rugby now enjoys in Ireland, but he has little interest in being triumphalist.

"I'm a sports fan, like so many people in this country, and I think there's room for all of us. I'd love to see the soccer team doing well soon. I love the GAA - especially when the Championship gets going in summer. You look at some thing like the success of the ladies' hockey team and you feel pride, too.

"That's the way it should be - be proud of that green jersey no matter what the code is."

Boys in green in numbers

€87m   

Turnover of the IRFU in 2017, up from €48m in 2007

€49m

Turnover of the FAI last year, up from €45m in 2007

1   

Number of wins for the Republic of Ireland in 2018 (vs USA in a friendly), and the number of defeats for the rugby team (vs Australia)this year

 2  

The world ranking of our rugby team

33

The world ranking of our soccer team

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