Rugby impasse continues as no deal reached in fourth round of IRFU salary talks
Players face reduced wages in August if IRFU-Rugby Players Ireland stalemate remains
Munster captain Peter O’Mahony launches the #DoBitsHelpLots campaign with GreenAware at his home in Cork. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Despite positive sounds from both sides, round four of salary talks between the IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland (RPI) ended without an agreement.
“Both parties are still working towards a solution,” read a joint statement on Wednesday.
At least one decision must be made before August wages can be paid. If a stalemate remains come the end of this month the current pay deferral scheme, ranging from 10 to 50 per cent of current salaries, with the highest earners taking the biggest cuts, would have to remain in place.
The financial crisis caused by coronavirus prompted the union to initially seek 20 per cent pay cuts across the board. Administrative staff facilitated this situation by dropping to a four-day working week but players cannot contemplate this scenario if Irish rugby is to remain at the elite end of the European and global game.
Michael Costello, the managing director of BDO chartered accountants, and tax expert Ciarán Medlar are leading discussions, on behalf of the players, with IRFU director of finance Conor O’Brien.
The BDO men were granted access to the union’s books so players can understand the true financial state of Irish rugby.
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne and his RPI counterpart Simon Keogh are also involved in the “ongoing discussions”.
There are no active players in the room but Keogh reports back to a board that includes chairman Rob Kearney, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton and Munster captain Peter O’Mahony.
“As I am sure you respect I would be quite compromised being on the board and representing all the players in Ireland,” said O’Mahony at a sponsor’s event. “So, I am not going to take any questions on this. Sorry lads.”
If an agreement cannot be reached between RPI and the IRFU, player agents will step in to negotiate individual deals for their clients.
Rugby Australia and their players’ body agreed this week for all Super Rugby squad members to take a 30 per cent pay cut until the end of September.
Keogh and Browne could adopt a similar arrangement, to be reviewed before the Six Nations, based on how many supporters are allowed to attend matches in 2021.
Browne is adamant – despite last year’s sale of Newlands Cross for €25 million, the €5.5 million recently received from Pro-14 investors CVC and approximately €13 million in Government aid – that Irish rugby remains heavily reliant on filling the Aviva Stadium at least five times a year.
“I think we’re overly reliant on match day income and that probably is a common scenario at a number of other clubs,” said Ian Flanagan, the Munster CEO, last month. “And, what this period has proven is that an over reliance on match day revenue . . . where you can’t play games and get people in stadiums is extremely damaging to the revenues.”
Perversely, games being played in largely empty stadiums over the coming months is a negotiating chip for the IRFU as they will be forced to slash costs.
Unlike the continuing disputes in England that led to the Leicester Tigers marquee player Manu Tuilagi refusing to sign an amended contract that would reduce his £500,000 (€554,000) annual salary by up to 25 per cent, relations in Irish rugby remain cordial despite one public shot across the bow by RPI.
Leicester are reporting losses of £5 million (€5.5 million) due to the pandemic with Tuilagi and former Leinster centre Noel Reid in a gang of six players set to leave the club in protest to wage reductions.
To be selected for England, Tuilagi would need to join a rival Premiership team but the Times is reporting a “gentleman’s agreement” exists between English club owners not to poach players from each other during this period.
O’Mahony, acting as an ambassador for GreenAware 100 per cent compostable bags to encourage sustainable living, also avoided questions about the impact of James Cronin’s doping violation on the Munster squad.
The veteran Ireland flanker did elaborate on the need for players to adhere to stricter social interactions than the general public even when restrictions are relaxed.
“The only [target] we have been given really is the 23rd of August for Leinster in the Aviva,” said O’Mahony.
“Even when restrictions are lifted we still have to be mindful of where we are going and who we are with. We are trying to restrict ourselves to as little movement as possible.
“Guys have to get on with life in some ways but we understand that as soon as one of us [catches coronavirus] you are potentially putting the entire IRFU playing group into jeopardy. We know that there is a huge amount of responsibility on our shoulders with regard to looking after ourselves and being as diligent as possible with all the possibilities.”
On concerns about returning to group training, O’Mahony added: “I am very confident in the Government, for one, the way they have looked after the situation in general. We are working from their guidelines.
“I am very confident in the IRFU, the way they have handled our situation with regard to implementing the restrictions and implementing what we can and can’t do. I am very confident in Munster after how they kitted out and laid out the high performance centre. I am very confident in all those organisations to look after me and the players and the public in general as best as they can.
“As much as you are hugely hungry to get back playing the sport you need to have the confidence in those people to do it. They have shown some great governance over the last three or four months to get us back to the training ground.”