Munster chief keeps faith through trying time

Garrett Fitzgerald on issues that keep him occupied as longest-serving provincial CEO

Garrett Fitzgerald on Munster’s dwindling attendances: “The market has changed and I still believe our core support is a good 15,000.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Garrett Fitzgerald on Munster’s dwindling attendances: “The market has changed and I still believe our core support is a good 15,000.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

As Munster’s decline has continued apace over the last couple of months, so the attention has focused as much, understandably, on the role of CEO Garrett Fitzgerald as on Anthony Foley and the rest of the coaching staff and players. And he is fully aware of it.

Fitzgerald coached CBC, UCC, Munster under-20s, Combined Universities, Irish Universities and the Munster senior team for three years in the early 1990s, and has been CEO of Munster since December 1999, making him the longest serving provincial CEO.

“As far as today, anyway,” he says which is typical of his good-humoured demeanour in front of the media in Limerick on Tuesday, and in an hour-long interview the next day with The Irish Times in Dublin.

“A lot of people say they don’t read things. I always read what people write. You feel a total sense of responsibility. I was heavily involved with rugby in Munster before I ever got paid to do it. I feel part of it. I would nearly feel the same responsibility if I wasn’t getting paid.”

He says that journalists, ex-players and fans are fully entitled to their opinions. “We’re in a professional business. We’re selling a product. People like it to be perfect all the time. Every weekend you go out the most teams that can win are 50 per cent in all the competitions. Over a long number of years we’ve been fortunate to win a lot more than we’ve lost.”

Fitzgerald notes that despite losing so many experienced players, Munster reached the final of the Pro12 and missed out on qualifying for the European Cup quarter-finals because of a home defeat to Clermont. He maintains that given a reasonable run of injuries, Munster had improved their side by “10 or 15 per cent” this season, allowing for the departure of Paul O’Connell. “He was always a big loss but we knew Paul was going to be gone.”

But Felix Jones’ retirement was a blow that destabilised Munster and compounded the loss of Peter O’Mahony’s leadership, and Tyler Bleyendaal injury woes.

Of late, there has been a lack of confidence, and by half-time in Paris last Saturday, Munster were down “four or five of our first-choice pack, and I don’t believe that any Munster team can go to France and take on the team that won the Top 14 without having most of your full team, playing well and having a little bit of luck.”

Critiques

Performances on the pitch are a direct product of poor performance off it, goes the theory. One of the main critiques of Munster’s off-field management is the €9 million debt that remains on the €39 million spent on redeveloping Thomond Park, along with the redevelopment of Musgrave Park at a time when their Anglo-French rivals, and indeed maybe their Irish rivals, have bigger playing budgets.

The refurbishment of Musgrave Park, to give the ground its long-standing name in these pages, cost €3.25 million, “which was an exceptionally good price at a very competitive time in the construction market. There was no borrowing involved. There was some outstanding lottery funding, and naming rights, and savings on other things. So it made total sense, and there’s no money owing on it.”

The Thomond Park debt is, he says, “capital investment. That’s not current annual expenditure. They are two totally different things. You make allowances out of cash flow for paying it. There’s very little difference between our budget and Leinster and Ulster. If there’s a perception that there is a difference, that perception is wrong.

“If any mistake was made, it was the repayment terms rather than the amount. But that is not a financial drain.”

He says that Munster have been helped by private philanthropy.

On the oft-questioned activity of Munster’s commercial board, Fitzgerald lists the following: “The commercial board has a large number of very influential business leaders with proven track records. Our Greencore sponsorship of the academy has grown out of the commercial board, as has our naming rights of Irish Independent Park, our sponsorship with Marks & Spencer for the community games, our academy patronage scheme, a scheme to assist in the funding of the [UL] training base . . . I can keep going. So a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

There is the risk, now that Munster are based solely in Limerick, of possibly alienating their Cork fanbase, and maybe others outside Limerick. “Whatever way this happened, there was going to be some feeling of alienation. The reality is it has to happen.”

As in France and the UK, schedules will be tailored to accommodate players driving from Cork and elsewhere to UL.

“Unfortunately, their road network is slightly improved on what we’re driving on, and that’s a very disappointing aspect on the overall vision that the Government have for the Munster region and the whole economy; that they can’t even see to put the M20 on their priority list for planning. The Limerick and the Cork Chambers of Commerce and the industries affected by it are very disappointed by it.

Timing of fixtures

“But we’ve had to make a decision, and we’ll do everything possible to make sure that the connection with the community remains. As regards the timing of fixtures, we discuss as much as we can with TV companies, but ultimately they have a big say.”

He maintains these off-field outlays have not affected their on-field recruitment budget. He points out that Munster recruited Francis Saili at the same time as Ulster signed Charles Piatau. A substantial offer was made to Stephen Moore, which the IRFU originally turned down, and then the “persuasive powers of the right honourable Michael Cheika” came into play. “There was no issue with the money, that’s 100 per cent.”

When it comes to recruitment, Foley and his coaches identify a player, along with Munster’s Professional Game Board. This is comprised of its chairman, John Kelly; Greg Barrett, a former Cork Con player; Killian Keane, the one-time Munster centre-cum-outhalf; John Hartery, a previous PGB chairman from Thomond and an accountant with BDO Simpson Xavier; Denis Kelleher, a Munster past-president, from Midleton, and “a very strong rugby person”; and Fitzgerald himself.

“If a player is identified, and if it is in agreement with the IRFU, I then take it up to see if a deal can be done.”

When Munster redeveloped Thomond Park into a 27,000 capacity stadium – one of the biggest of any of the club/provincial sides in Europe – they filled it four or five times a season and even had 20,000-plus crowds for games against the likes of Glasgow. Heady days. Gone now. They’re not attracting attendances like that anymore.

“But no one else is either,” counters Fitzgerald. “I’ve been to two conferences recently, where there was a case study on support for sport in Ireland, and they reckon that one day they’ll be paying people to go to make it look well on television.”

Noting the 12,000 who attended a Wasps-Bath European Cup game, he adds: “We’re beating ourselves over the head because we’re not getting 26,000 every week. Some Premiership soccer clubs in England are not getting that. The market has changed and I still believe our core support is a good 15,000. But the timing of games is affecting people, and then the fact that we’re not getting results.”

Improving matters on the pitch, both in the short- and long-term, looks problematic. The decline of the club game was always going to affect Munster more than their rivals, and due to socio-economic factors, it has also been sharpest there.

“In the last two seasons, we have cleared 300 adult players out of the province to play elsewhere, so that’s the equivalent of 20 adult rugby teams alone,” reveals Fitzgerald, who added that when one of their lower division clubs played in Dublin this season, the home team’s backline was comprised entirely of Munster players.

“They are staggering figures, and secondly, statistics show us that the 25 to 35-year-old adult is no longer playing a whole lot of rugby, and that age group is no longer attending matches in Thomond Park,” he adds, or Musgrave Park.

Aside from reducing the number of senior clubs, Fitzgerald suggests the league should be trimmed to two top divisions with regionalisation below that. It would save clubs’ money and concentrate talent in the club game, but A games are needed to ready players for professional rugby.

Clubs and their members complain about having to pay for their allocations en bloc regardless of whether they can sell them in full or not. “That is because the clubs made that decision themselves. They wanted to be guaranteed X number of tickets. We adjusted that in the last couple of seasons to allow them to order only what they wanted to order. If they didn’t want to order any tickets, they didn’t have to do so. That needs to be made very clear. But if they order them, they have to pay for them, as they have to do for international rugby.”

That Munster have been so reliant on the club game is because their schools’ game and academy (heretofore separate fiefdoms) have languished behind Leinster and Ulster, with Connacht catching up. Witness Munster’s negligible presence on Irish under-age sides.

“Ours is fine now,” says Fitzgerald of their schools/academy relationship. “Our schools game isn’t on the same profile as Leinster’s. They have 25 junior academies with full-time paid staff, putting in 4G pitches with the help of past pupils. We won the schools inter-pros last season, which is a miracle, and the under-20 interpros. If we do that on a five-year cycle, we’d be delighted given what’s there.

Commercial market

“To be successful, we will always have to punch above our weight. If you look at the whole economic, commercial market, Connacht and Munster shouldn’t even be playing rugby.”

He maintains that if Munster retain their identity and culture, they can be successful again, but says this has to be judged also on the Pro12. “When we were winning competitions in Europe there was no €70 million TV deal in France or €40 million TV deal in England.”

Yet the most pressing concern for Munster fans will be the province’s competitiveness on the pitch. “I’m very optimistic. The challenge is much bigger, and you have to build and be patient, and we have to demand a constant level of performance for ourselves. There have been a number of games where we’ve let ourselves down.

“That’s something that we need to work on, so whether it comes from younger players learning to play at that level. That’s something you grow with experience and it’s an opportunity for new players to be the leaders. You need leaders in business and on the pitch. Some players will take it, others won’t, and it’s a ruthless enough business.”

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