IRFU must dig deep to retain top players in brave new world of tournament rugby

The unions are countering the Anglo-French bluff by conceding to pretty much all their demands

Paul O’Connell is just one Ireland international who could take his talents abroad now that the Irish tax arrangements have been changed. Photograph: Inpho

Paul O’Connell is just one Ireland international who could take his talents abroad now that the Irish tax arrangements have been changed. Photograph: Inpho

Tue, Oct 29, 2013, 11:00

The storm enveloping the IRFU is becoming more and more perfect, or imperfect as they might see it.

Under an amendment to the so-called McCreevy tax break as part of last week’s Finance Bill, Irish rugby players may no longer need to finish their careers in Ireland in order to qualify for income tax relief upon retirement and at a stroke the golden handshake at retirement is no longer a golden handcuff as well.

It is particularly good news for a player such as Peter Stringer, now perhaps seeing out his distinguished career with Bath in the Aviva Premiership. It also means other players in the latter stages of their careers who take up a more lucrative move abroad – especially to France – would not be debarred from the refund on half the 40 per cent tax paid in their 10 most profitable years playing in Ireland.

Paul O’Connell (34) and the two 29-year-olds, Jamie Heaslip and Donnacha Ryan would fall into this category, whatever about Seán O’Brien and Conor Murray, who are also out of contract at the end of the season. As an aside, whether or not Toulon acquire Rory Kockott from Castres may determine the degree to which Kockott’s former coaches at Racing pursue Murray.


Bad timing
In any event, the changed rules (due to EU Commission concerns) could hardly have come at a worse juncture for the IRFU.

Although they have countered the recession and shortfall in five and 10-year ticket sales at the Aviva with a €26 million loan, there is also the emboldened financial power of the English, as well as the nouveau riche French clubs, on foot of the former’s deal with the new TV broadcasters on the block, BT.

Aside from the bigger injection of capital this has supposedly produced – the extent to which Premiership Rugby’s €180 million deal with BT hinges on a European tournament has not been divulged, even to the RFU – and whether or not a new trophy will come into existence, either way the Anglo-French will have relatively more financial muscle henceforth.

These developments, allied to the English clubs having the scope to acquire one marquee player outside their salary cap, have revived their ability to cherry pick the best of Celtic talent.

That is why Northampton’s signing of George North, whatever the individual intricacies of his case, was a warning shot across the bows of Irish rugby as well, as heretofore, the crème de la crème of Welsh players had been lured to the Top 14.

Yet in alliance with their player welfare treatment, the IRFU have to dig deep into their pockets to stave off the Anglo-French vultures. Even a two- or three-year hiatus in which there is an exodus of Irish players could become a 10-year hiatus.

The bully-boy tactics of Premiership Rugby League (PRL) and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), if it ensures a three-way split between the their leagues and the Rabo Pro 12, will further enable them to cherry pick the best from the Celtic/Italian countries even if the latter’s combined share from a pan-European tournament remains at about the €20 million mark.

Viewed in that light, and in the utter and continuing absence of any sign of leadership from the game’s governing body, ie the International Rugby Board in case we forget, last week’s agreement among the six unions and federations regarding a 20-team European Cup might look like a huge climbdown by the Celts and Italians.

It is, to a degree, as they would have preferred a 24-team tournament.

However, it is not perhaps quite the climbdown which has been generally portrayed. After all, this merely makes public the Celtic/Italian willingness to compromise on format and meritocratic qualification, as well as financial carve-up, which PRL and LNR representatives had stonewalled at stakeholders’ meetings – despite what their supporters in the English media might claim.

In a sense, the unions are countering the Anglo-French bluff by conceding to pretty much all their demands on the above, albeit without addressing the bigger bugbears who govern the tournament and who broadcast it.


In pursuit of compromise
Although the response of the PRL and LNR was predictably swift and negative, for once they did not throw their toys out of the pram.

In their joint communiqué of last Friday night, the Anglo-French club axis appeared to also be offering an olive branch in stating that their proposed Rugby Champions Cup would still be run to some degree under the auspices of the Six Nations.

However, in reality all they were saying was that the tournament would be run under IRB laws (which it had to be) and that the unions and federations could still oversee things like appointments of referees, drug-testing and disciplinary matters; pretty much the bureaucratic stuff they wouldn’t have the means or inclination to do anyway.

Meanwhile, the PRL-LNR axis would take over complete governance of the tournament.

In all of this though, it’s worth noting that the unions’ statement following two days of mediation talks and not only included agreement among the Celtic and Italian unions, but the RFU and the FFR as well. This means that for the first time, the RFU as well as the FFR, have aligned themselves with the Celts and the Italians, albeit only on issues of format and financial breakdown.

This in turn means that if the English and French clubs continue to play hard ball, they will become more isolated, and even the IRB will have to take notice of that.


gthornley@irishtimes.com

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