Is this the end of the golden age for Irish rugby?

The IRFU is facing into uncertain future on and off the pitch after an unprecedented period of success

Luke Fitzgerald, Rory Best and Mike McCarthy look dejected during the Six Nations, a tournament which could be the last for some players. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Luke Fitzgerald, Rory Best and Mike McCarthy look dejected during the Six Nations, a tournament which could be the last for some players. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


When the BBC closed out its final weekend of Six Nations highlights last Sunday it did so, fittingly, enough with Adele’s haunting theme song to Skyfall . Needless to say, when one of the slow-mos stayed on a mournful looking Brian O’Driscoll as the Irish players clapped their Italian counterparts from the field, cue “This Is the End”.

“Hold your breath and count to ten,” Adele adds in Skyfall as Bond plummets into the water. By rights of course, “This is the end” should have come with a question mark, and indeed, RTÉ might more legitimately have closed out its coverage of this year’s Six Nations with a montage of images to the backdrop of the Bond soundtrack.

For not only is there a question mark over O’Driscoll’s future. Save for diamonds maybe, nothing lasts forever, that’s why some eras are called golden, but with the golden generation coming to an end, it is entirely valid to ask of Ireland’s golden era: is this the end?

And it was golden, if more so for the provinces. From the January day in 2000 when Ulster won the European Cup, to the ensuing Six Nations which featured five new caps in a 44-22 win over Scotland and O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in Paris, Munster and Leinster won five Heineken Cups in a seven year period from 2006 to 2012, and Ireland finally augmented three Triple Crowns with the Grand Slam of 2009.

For sure, one Slam/championship from a golden era will forever be a source of regret, especially set alongside two World Cup quarter-final defeats either side of a group exit, and set against three Grand Slams and now another Six Nations title for the Welsh.

Wales also have a young international squad set to be the bulk suppliers for the forthcoming Lions tour and ought to be even better come the 2015 World Cup, with England also far more advanced in their World Cup cycle.

Of the 23 players used in Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, only five featured in Rome last Saturday. Of the others, eight have since retired, six were injured and four were deemed surplus to requirements. Put another way, four years on, only five of those 23 players are still in their 20s.

Admittedly, you wonder how Wales’ latest golden era can be sustained given the penurious, under-performing state of their regions, but even the Irish provinces – especially Munster and Leinster – appear to be in transition, whatever about decline.

Retirement and injuries
Munster were first to be hit by a spate of retirements and injuries. Following on from the loss or retirements of Anthony Foley, Anthony Horgan, John Kelly, Trevor Halstead, Shaun Payne and Federico Pucciariello from the successful class of 2006, of the 22 players used in Munster’s 2008 Heineken Cup final win over Toulouse, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy, Mick O’Driscoll, Ian Dowling and Frankie Sheahan have all retired, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi, Tomás O’Leary, Paul Warwick and Tony Buckley have moved on, as to all intents and purposes has Peter Stringer, while contracts for Ronan O’Gara and Doug Howlett have still to be resolved for next season. Put another way, Keith Earls and Denis Hurley are the only current Munster players from that final squad still in their 20s.

Having failed to reach the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 13 years two seasons ago, and also table-toppers and champions of the League in ’09 and ’11, Munster currently lie sixth and seven points off the play-offs in the Pro12.

At least Connacht are punching above their weight, witness much improved under-age results and performances, not to mention a more productive conveyor belt from their academy, while Ulster – through their indigenous talent identification and academy, along with quality imports – also appear relatively buoyant.

Through sheer numbers and the unrelenting production line of the Leinster Schools Cups, Leinster are also well placed to keep on churning out home-grown players. But despite a recent swathe of Academy products, Munster will always be disadvantaged by their bi-location, a comparative lack of numbers and the quality of their schools game.

As one former Ireland and Munster player still involved in the club game noted recently, “while Blackrock were beating Roscrea in the Leinster semi-finals by 23-20, Crescent and CBC drew their semi-final 3-all. The schools game in Munster is years behind.”

That said, Leinster’s production line is about to be tested like never before and a transitional period has been compounded by the departure of Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa. Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr are also leaving, there’s a question mark as to whether Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen will play beyond next season, Joe Schmidt himself is only under contract for one more year and is being linked with the Irish job.

Injuries and a tough draw undoubtedly contributed toward Leinster failing to reach the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for only the second time in nine years, but after Leinster’s golden era, Guy Easterby has sought to dispel fears that the upcoming transition will be painful for a province.

“It’s been a long process, where we’ve got to from the start of the professionalism. The last few years, we’ve been able to manage that situation, Denis (Hickie), Shane (Horgan) and Girvan (Dempsey), you look at those back-three players and think that’s the end of an era at those positions. But then you’ve got Rob Kearney and Dave Kearney coming through.

‘Always in transition’
“I feel like we are always in transition but that’s probably because I’ve got my head in the books the whole time looking at positions and our succession planning, so my view of it is probably very different to the general perception. We are continuously striving to move forward, not being happy with where we are, whether that’s day to day or week to week, month to month or in my role looking at the bigger picture.”

“All I can say is that we are working incredibly hard to keep the place moving forward. ”

However, losing Sexton was a hammer blow. As a three-time Heineken Cup winner still in his prime, he would have been in the vanguard of those inheriting the baton from the departing leadership group.

Sexton’s departure to Racing Metro for a reputed €600,000 per year not only sends out the wrong message to other frontline Irish players, but should the provinces not be contenders in Europe, then others surely will follow. And there’s plenty more French euro where they came from.

The 2011 renewal of the LNR’s (Ligue National de Rugby) deal with Canal+ for coverage of the Top 14 was worth €32 million per annum until 2015, and even then the clubs felt short-changed given the Canal+ deal with their football’s La Ligue was 20 times that.

Hence, they are looking to renegotiate and, a la the advent of BT in England, the Qatar-financed beIN sport are entering the market in France.

Furthermore, the LNR’s many sponsors – Orange, Societe Generale, PMU and others – help generate an annual turnover of roughly €75 million, of which €60 million is shared out between the Top 14 and ProD12 clubs. This in turn is more than augmented by the clubs’ own sponsors, while ten of the Top 14 are owned by personal benefactors who, in the highly relevant case of Jacky Lorenzetti at Racing, can defray their annual budget of €22 million or so with €5-6 million from their own pockets. How do you compete against that?

In fairness, the IRFU have been doing so better than their Celtic counterparts for years, even matching the Aviva Premiership, but as the Sexton case highlighted, if a French club really wants one of their best players, the Union struggle to compete. Furthermore, these are the most challenging times the Union have faced, financially and on the pitch, since the early years of professionalism.

Current climate
The Union are currently in the throes of selling the next tranche of ten-year tickets, about 3,700, which they have initially offered to their existing holders to renew for either five or ten years, and at the same price as ten years ago, €9,000. A decade ago this raised close on €34 million.

The IRFU expect to end up with 50 per cent or so of them being renewed but aside from plenty of anecdotal evidence of those who will not be renewing their ten-year tickets, banking institutions which used to take up a few hundred, can no longer do so in the current climate.

On the plus side, the monies raised ten years ago helped the IRFU to pay off loans toward the building of the Aviva Stadium. Based on their Strategic Plan of 2005, the Union could borrow up to €38 million, but it is understood that they have repaid most of that loan, so at least they are not saddled with a huge debt. At a guess they owe the banks at most €15 million.

In addition, Puma recently withdrew from their kit deal with the IRFU (due to run until 2017) as part of their strategy to withdraw from European rugby, and while the confidential settlement afforded the Union time to find a new kit sponsor, this is not a favourable time to do so.

Furthermore, next Wednesday the Union chief executive, along with his counterparts in the FAI, John Delaney, and GAA, Páraic Duffy, will meet with a joint Oireachtas Committee to discuss the Government’s vexed proposal to curb or even abolish alcohol sponsorship in sport. Here again, due primarily to their sponsorship from Guinness, notably the Guinness Series in November and indirectly the Heineken Cup, this could cost the Union an estimated €8-9 million per year. Such an eventuality would indeed spell the end for Irish rugby as we know it.

Alcohol sponsorship in sport is an easy target, as opposed to curbing under-priced cans and bottles of shots in supermarkets, and the three sports bodies will seek to work with the Government and invest in educating young people to the evils of excessive alcohol consumption.

Combined with the passing of the golden generation and a decline in fortunes on the pitch, the IRFU are being hit by a blizzard of problems in these straitened times.

Before Bond re-emerges, Adele adds:

“Let the sky fall, when it crumbles

We will stand tall

And face it all together.”

Maybe the Union’s conservatism in the good times could yet stand to them now. But then again, you always knew Bond would somehow swim ashore.

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