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David McWilliams: The economic transformation of Irish rugby has been phenomenal

The IRFU generated €116m last year, while in contrast, every single Premiership club in England started this season operating at a loss

The wing is a lonely position in rugby.

Playing out on the windswept touchline in a schools cup final in Lansdowne Road was a terrifying experience.

The opposition fly-half, obliged to see whether the winger was a flake, hoisted the ball up as high as possible towards the skinny redhead hugging touch outside his own 22.

Rarely has a ball come out of the sky so slowly, obscured cruelly by the shadow of the old West Stand. It hung there, defying gravity as the opposition’s pack thundered upon me. Miraculously, the wet ball stuck to me, no knock-on, no fumbles, just enough time to look up and send it back with interest. The relief. A roar from the crowd. Game on.


Decades later, I’ve an enduring empathy with wingers, particularly under the first high ball, but before I turn into the resident Irish Times alickadoo, let’s talk about the economics of rugby.

The financial transformation of Irish rugby has been phenomenal. In fact, from a management and organisational point of view, the turnaround in Irish rugby is the gold standard. So much about the way Irish rugby is organised appears to be driven by the common good of the game.

In contrast, other countries’ set-ups are characterised by poor management, vanity projects and bankruptcy. Let’s look at the headline figures. Last year, In Ireland, the IRFU, which owns the provincial clubs, generated €116 million. In contrast, every single Premiership club in England started this season operating at a loss, with many, including London Irish, in severe financial difficulty.

Socially, the change in rugby’s fortunes reflects some broader trends in Irish society. The game I played in school has broken out of its largely middle class, old-suburb bubble to become something more representative and more popular.

The number of registered rugby players in Ireland has grown by 35 per cent since 2003, contributing to grassroots development. From a playing population of just over 17,000 in the 1980s, by 2021, there were over 156,000 registered players. Clubs are springing up all over the country.

According to figures from World Rugby, there’s been a 55 per cent increase among teenagers aged 12 to 18 and over 60,000 children participated in youth rugby programs in 2020. Growth in the women’s game has outpaced men’s (perhaps reflecting a lower base rate), with a 45 per cent increase in registered female players.

There has been a 20 per cent increase in attendance at matches over the last two decades, reaching an average of 51,000 attendees per international game in 2021. Across the provinces, the increase has been as high as a 30 per cent rise for Leinster to a more modest 15 per cent rise in Connacht. There has also been a 10 per cent increase in international tourists attending matches.

Of course, this has all been driven by success. The more Irish teams are winning, the more people turn up to watch. Interestingly, rugby’s success stems from a realisation after the 2013 Six Nations season – where Ireland came second last and were beaten by Italy – that something had to change.

The IRFU came up with an integrated strategy setting out explicit targets for success. The national team were to win one Six Nations title at least every four years, the provinces to win at least four United Rugby Championships and three Heineken Cups across the decade.

Realising that the old structure of many clubs could not deliver the capacity to compete internationally, the game was reorganised along provincial lines with the IRFU financing the provinces out of central funds, garnered from international ticket sales, merchandising and – the big one – TV rights.

Within this structure, at a lower level, academies were set up to provide a conveyor belt of fresh talent coming largely from the existing schools’ infrastructure. It may sound clichéd but this top down, integrated organisational system has meant that the Irish rugby world that always had its talent and one-off victories, became something where the whole became greater than the sum of the parts. In economics, management and strategy this is what success looks like. And on the field, success followed.

Contrast this with English rugby where the national team’s problems on the pitch reflect deeper chaos at club level. Ireland has gone for the top-down, national-led approach, England has vouched for the bottom-up, externally-financed route.

Hoping to repeat a mini version of Premiership football, English premiership rugby opened itself up to private equity. In 2019, a financial outfit called CVC paid £200m for 27 per cent of Premiership Rugby, valuing the league at £740 million. It was thought that this would launch a new era for English rugby.

Then Covid hit. No games, no revenue. More significantly, by selling a chunk of the league to private equity that operates on borrowed money, English rugby tied itself and its fortunes to the international credit cycle.

Initially the clubs got some of this revenue bonanza but the easy money, rather than prompting judicious investment, resulted in poor performances.

As noted, all 13 clubs in the English Premiership made losses. Wasps for example, one of the biggest clubs in England in 2021, made a £7.5 million loss on revenues of only £13 million!

Having to generate revenue at all costs, now the English Premiership actually plays games on Six Nations weekends, leading to second-string games with poor attendances, further undermining the brand of English club.

Many of the English clubs that are still operating are only doing so because they are vanity projects of rich owners. If these owners get fed up, what happens next? For Irish rugby fans, the demise of London Irish this June, a club that was knitted into the DNA of Irish international teams over the years, is particularly galling.

In contrast, the performances of the Irish provinces and the national team, both on and off the field, show they are in rude health. Complacency, however, is the enemy of success. Yesterday’s losers come back as winners, and today’s top dogs are humbled by upstarts, such is the relentlessness of competition.

Hopefully, our national team will do us proud in France and bring their best performance to the biggest stage. For this fan, it will always be the same. The moment their outhalf belts the ball into the heavens to our wingers, as the ball hangs and the opposition bear down on the exposed man, a part of me will tremble.