Safe hands at the wheel as IRFU braces itself for perfect storm
Browne maintains Union will do its damndest to keep marquee players at home
Empty seats in the Aviva Stadium during the Autumn Series in 2010 showing the shortfall in the sale of five and 10-year tickets.
A perfect storm appears to be enveloping Irish rugby and the IRFU. A club game in debt and in crisis; the unremitting economic climate as evidenced by the €26 million shortfall in the sale of five and 10-year tickets at the Aviva Stadium; the loss of Ireland’s kit supplier and reduced ticket prices for the autumn Tests, and meanwhile the French vultures are circling to pick off more of Ireland’s marquee players.
At the apex of this storm, of course, is the huge schism that is threatening to tear the game apart, and the specific threat to the Heineken Cup, which – economically and spiritually – has probably been more of a godsend to Irish rugby than any of the other participating countries.
The IRFU brace themselves with a safe pair of hands at the wheel in Philip Browne. True to type, rather than presenting radical or dynamic plans for the future, Browne’s central message is that the union will hang tough, stick to its principles and its avowed solidarity with other unions, while riding out the storm with the help of a bank loan to see out that €26 million shortfall.
Inevitably, there is no ignoring the latest developments in the ongoing row over the future of European club rugby, and the broadsides from the unholy alliance of the English and French clubs. “At the end of the day we’re going to work within rugby as we know it. If they want to go beyond the pale that’s their business.”
Although English Premiership Rugby League have stated they will not attend the ERC mediation talks on October 23rd, according to Browne, discussions are continuing behind the scenes, suggesting that Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie is acting as a go-between.
“They talk to their unions and we’re talking to their unions as well and we would hope common sense will prevail, and that people understand that if what you want is a vibrant competition in Europe, formatted in a way that suits everyone and a fair distribution, I think all of that can be delivered. I think what cannot be delivered is effectively a governing structure which blocks units out.”
The €26 million shortfall announced at the union’s agm last summer in the sale of five and 10-year tickets came despite reverting to 2003 prices of €5,500 and €9,000. “It means that effectively we will have to cover that funding gap by borrowing.”
Come on sale
Further tranches will come on sale in 2016 and 2018, before the premium seats in 2020. “At that stage we want to be back on an even keel again,” says Browne, who says he is not overly concerned by taking out the loan. Helpfully, the IRFU’s debt towards the Aviva Stadium has been paid off.
There were four years left on the Puma kit deal when the sports manufacturers withdrew from their deal (worth a reputed €40 million-plus over seven years) with the IRFU. Puma paid a severance payment of €11.5 million and will continue to supply kit for the remainder of this season. Browne is “pretty confident” that a new kit sponsor “will be nailed down within the next couple of months”. That said, this too will see a reduction on the outgoing deal with Puma. “The Puma deal was a fantastic deal and it will be difficult to repeat that deal,” admitted Browne. “But we will get a good deal. The Irish brand is a strong brand.”
Last summer’s agm also revealed a drop in “cash flow” from a surplus of €2.5 million to a deficit of €4.5 million, largely due to a reduced return on meritocracy payments from the Heineken Cup, only two autumn Tests and two Six Nations games at home.