Frustrated but happy with progress

 

RUGBY: NIALL WOODS INTERVIEW:Gerry Thornley gets the thoughts of the Irupa chief executive as he calls time on his eight-year tenure

NIALL WOODS will end his eight-year tenure as chief executive of the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (Irupa) in January with a residual feeling of frustration over his occasionally difficult relationship with the IRFU, but also grateful for much of the progress made by the association under his watch.

The former Ireland winger yesterday confirmed his intention to stand down in January, and when asked what had been the biggest challenge he had faced since assuming his role in January 2003, didn’t beat about the bush.

“I think the biggest challenge overall has been trying to persuade the IRFU of the importance of embracing the players as a collective body; the need for them to listen to the players more, to get their input, because after all if you go back to the IRFU’s free-to-air briefing document back in May they described the players as ‘Irish rugby’s key income generators’, so therefore they have to be treated with more respect than they currently are.”

That said, Woods admitted “you have to praise the IRFU for acknowledging the need for a players’ association back in October 2001, but in professional sport I think their structures don’t lend to getting things done quickly. That’s the way players are used to being dealt with, whereas the IRFU structures go back to the amateur days of committees and it takes a long time to get things resolved.”

For three years, from 2006 through to 2008, Irupa were self-funded through sponsorship and players’ subscriptions as they awaited the process of completing a standard player contract with the Union. “Unique in world rugby,” notes Woods, “and probably in any (players) association, other than the GPA (Gaelic Players Association), who did it for 10 years.”

Aside from the wheels of bureaucracy moving slowly, Woods cites one example of where the relationship between Union and association was both good and bad. “We brought a concept to them of “an independent exit medical”, for all players retiring out of the game to be independently assessed by an orthopaedic surgeon and any injuries picked up over their career they have 12 months to get them corrected, whether that’s rehab or surgery.

“The IRFU took that on board in June 2009, which was great, but come May 2010, after no consultation with us, it’s taken from an independent orthopaedic surgeon to the team doctor doing it,” recalls Woods. “So after being pro-active for once – it was the first of its kind in world rugby – they then go and take the independent bit out of it. And certain guys haven’t had it done to date when they’re supposed to have it done by June 30th. Something like that was very disappointing.”

Against that, there has been job satisfaction too, most notably the introduction of a players’ services programme, which took three-and-a-half years from conception to reality and saw the appointment of Hamish Adams in January 2008 to help players develop interests outside rugby, both as a counter-balance to their job and a career post-rugby.

“If you look at Saracens, Brendan Venter said every player has to do something off the field. He doesn’t want players who just go and play Play Station. He wants them to be all-round individuals, because you have more skills off the pitch, you’ll bring that on to the pitch.”

Woods was especially pleased by the players’ response. Out of the 150 association members at the time, 65 responded in the first year and Adams is currently working with 110 of the 200-odd members (Academy players have since joined the association).

This, however, has created other problems, as the association seek funding from the Union, the provinces and sponsors for additional advisers. “Compared to the other nations around the world, we are way behind,” states Woods. For example, his counterpart Damian Hopley receives in the region of €3 million over three years from the RFU and Premier Rugby to provide the same services for four times as many players, but that still equates to more than double what Irupa receive.

A comparable example would be Australia, with players centrally contracted through four provincial teams (about to go to five).

“They get probably three to four times what we get. But then player associations are ingrained in the sporting system in Australia, whereas they’re not here.

“They have a players’ services provider for each Super 14 franchise in New Zealand and Australia. England are going to six for the 12 (Premiership) clubs, which is one (provider) per two clubs, whereas we’ve one for four.”

The challenge for the association is convincing the provinces to “understand the benefits of the programme. Ultimately what you’re trying to produce here isn’t just a machine of a player and then chuck him out into the real world, but someone who has a continuing understanding of what he needs to do off the field, which has benefit to the province, both on the pitch and off it.”

So why leave? “I believe I’ve taken it as far as I can take it. I’m driven by success and I wanted a change. I wanted to take up a new challenge.” To that end, he is starting up his own sports marketing company in the new year, which will be predominantly representing rugby players, but also other sports as well as event management and hospitality.

“I’ve done a lot of research into it. I’ve seen the pitfalls and the good sides of sports management and I believe I’ve the skills set over the past eight years to put me in a strong position.”