Time to pull on the green jersey as Irish rugby faces a challenging 12 months

Future of professional game’s health depends on national team being successful

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photograph: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photograph: Billy Stickland/INPHO

 

The polite term for the obstacles that professional rugby in Ireland must negotiate on and off the pitch over the next 12 months is challenging.

The IRFU confirmed a loss in projected earnings of €26 million from the sale of 10 year and five year tickets at their annual general meeting earlier in the summer and that the operating cash surplus of the previous year (€2.4 million) was replaced by a deficit of €4.5 million.

The union’s chief executive Philip Browne neatly encapsulated the disappointing ticket sales when he remarked. “We’ve been to the market and it has said what it has said. We sold just under 50 per cent of the (3,700) tickets.”

Irish rugby’s governing body has been prudent in their husbandry of the finances in the professional era but as they have constantly reiterated the money to run the sport is largely derived from the income generated in the Test area. If the national side is not successful, the footfall though the gates of the Aviva stadium will decrease.The knock-on effect will permeate through the levels from the provincial to clubs and schools as the money available to not only develop but nurture the game will shrink. Puma’s decision to withdraw early from their contract to supply the national teams provided for an €11.5 million fillip to the coffers in the form of a severance payment.

The IRFU is negotiating to secure a replacement sponsor that should soon be in place. The challenge for the chosen manufacturer and the IRFU is to try and redress a balance in jersey sales that sees Munster, Leinster and recently Ulster shirts comprehensively outsell the national one.

State of flux
The future of the Heineken Cup remains in a state of flux with no resolution in sight. It’s another fiscal irritant for the IRFU who’ll be hoping that finding RaboDirect’s successor is a less fraught process.

Financial constraints off the pitch are index linked to performance on it. Joe Schmidt takes over as national coach amid a welter of positive publicity. His achievements at Leinster brook no argument in terms of his quality as a coach but that success also engenders expectation from the supporters.

He must be allowed time to imprint his own style, along with his assistants, John Plumtree and Les Kiss, which will be a less straight forward task with limited access to the players than he encountered at provincial level. The IRFU will be hoping privately that not only can he work the oracle in terms of success following a largely fallow period in the last 24 months but that he can do so immediately.

There is no acclimatisation period. Samoa, one place above Ireland in the world rankings come to town in November and they are swiftly followed by Australia and Ireland’s nemesis, New Zealand. Those results will have a significant bearing on ticket sales for the Six Nations championship. The IRFU will be crossing fingers and toes.

Season ticket sales in the provinces have been predominantly positive but that too is predicated on success. Rob Penney had to preside over a difficult first season at Munster, where the team did brilliantly to reach a Heineken Cup semi-final while managing a very public transition in terms of playing personal.

Not forgotten
Ronan O’Gara and Dougie Howlett are gone but not forgotten. They’ll cast long shadows from which their successors must escape. The cheque book has been brandished sparingly.

Leinster finally managed to lift the elusive RaboDirect Pro12 title and achieve a little European compensation in claiming the Amlin Challenge Cup. They bade farewell to Schmidt and welcomed Matt O’Connor to take over the coaching reins. It’s a tough job to follow but the Australian comes with a reputation for being a super analyst and innovative. He also likes to give youth a chance.

That’ll be important in his first season because in 10 months’ time he must replace the incomparable Brian O’Driscoll, as must Ireland. One of the contenders will be Luke Fitzgerald. If ever a player deserved a playing sabbatical from injury, it’s the richly gifted 25-year-old.

Ulster were the best side in the Pro12 for all bar the final 80 minutes. They boast some of the outstanding young talent in the country and are two thirds of the way to redeveloping and redefining the Ravenhill roar in a spanking new stadium with an 18,000 capacity. It’s time to add that silver lining.

Pat Lam succeeds Eric Elwood as Connacht coach. The arrival of Waikato Chief’s Super 15 captain Craig Clarke, underlines that the Samoan can recruit shrewdly. He understands the challenge that he faces and that’s an important starting point.

There’s no doubt that the unqualified success story of last season from a national standpoint was the Grand Slam won by the Ireland Women’s team. The emphasis for them now switches to Sevens in some respects.

The IRFU is presiding over a sport that has enjoyed some outstanding success in recent seasons at provincial level but to be able to fund the province’s ambition the national side must find a persuasive argument to invite supporters through the turnstiles in their droves.