IRFU chief executive Philip Browne fears cost of losing out to club owners
Union and provinces generate €10-12m from European competition
The scene of last season’s Heineken Cup final between Clermont Auvergne and Toulon which was held at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne fears Irish rugby could lose millions and the sport worldwide could suffer if wealthy club owners gain control of the major rugby competitions.
Browne expressed the union’s fears despite the French clubs agreeing to play in the Heineken Cup next season. Under pressure from their union, Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) French clubs committed for the 2014-15 season, while the 14 English Premiership clubs insisted last week they would not participate in any tournaments run by European Rugby Cup, the governing body of the Heineken Cup.
On foot of the LNR’s announcement to stay within the Heineken Cup, chief executive of Premiership Rugby Mark McCafferty reputedly wrote to all the English clubs stressing the PRL’s need to find out the details of what the French were saying. For now the French are on board but losing the English and French clubs at any time would make Irish rugby highly vulnerable to greatly diminished revenue streams.
“Realistically it would put us in a very difficult position,” said Browne if the French and English clubs departed. “We generate probably €5-6million from European competition on an annual basis and the provinces maybe generate the same again, so to take a hit of €10-12 million, and then to see a spiral in terms of commercial viability and brand strength being impacted . . . that has all got to have an impact.
“It is incumbent on all in European rugby to act with a little bit more maturity than we are currently appearing to do. The difficulty we have is that there are a number of club owners who have a very different position. Some of them have more money that the entire worth of international rugby – full stop. To them this is almost personal.”
The chief executive said the current disagreement between the unions and club owners is a straightforward battle for money and ultimately control of the sport. If the owners control the money, they can dictate what happens and that would be gravely injurious to the current integrity of the game.
“It’s not an ongoing battle for governance, it’s an ongoing battle for controlling the revenue streams,” explained Browne. “It’s a bit more subtle but actually what this is about is the English and French clubs would like to own the revenue streams. Obviously if they own the revenue streams they can dictate what happens.
“What people fail to understand, or certainly what some fail to understand, is that rugby is not soccer. Rugby is not a global sport and we’d be foolish to think it is. It’s not, it’s a very small sport played by a small number of countries at any sort of a high performance level and maybe in 50 years it will be a global sport. But to compare it to soccer is frankly ludicrous.”