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'It’s our job to get the message out about why Munster is so special'

CEO Ian Flanagan joined the province last year after years of working in football.

WHEN HE RETURNED to Ireland last year to take up what is essentially his dream job as CEO of Munster Rugby, Ian Flanagan couldn’t have imagined how tumultuous the first 10 months would be.

The Covid-19 crisis putting rugby on hold and in financial difficulty, James Cronin’s doping ban, and Munster’s exit at the pool stages of the Champions Cup, albeit in from a very difficult group – it certainly hasn’t been a quiet settling-in period.

Flanagan grew up around the corner from Musgrave Park and remembers running onto the pitch to get Tony Ward’s autograph, so Munster Rugby is as good as in his blood.

mick-dawson-and-ian-flanagan Munster CEO Ian Flanagan [right] with Leinster's Mick Dawson. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He had spent his adult life away from Ireland, intially working in sports talent management in London across a range of sports. He has acted as a consultant to Spanish football clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid, helping both to build their brands.

Flanagan was commercial director for Leicester City for over four years, his time with the club coinciding with their stunning Premier League success in 2016. His most recent role before Munster was as global head of football for the Treble Group but he’s now back working in the game that was his first love.

“Nobody understands more than I do how special Munster is and it’s a huge honour and a huge privilege and a huge responsibility following on from Garrett Fitzgerald,” said Flanagan yesterday in a nod to his predecessor.

“Obviously even before we had the pandemic, Garrett’s sad passing in February overshadowed the season hugely for us. He was Mr Munster. It’s a testament to everything he achieved that I’ve inherited a club in such good shape.

“I fully feel the responsibility of living up to everything Garrett did but also that this is a hugely exciting opportunity to ensure that whatever comes down to the track in terms of any calendar change or any development to our tournaments, Munster not only survives in that environment but is successful and thrives and that we can get the word out to the world about how special Munster is.

“We always say we want to be the best club and I think we really have that opportunity to go out and show it in the next couple of years.”

The challenges have already been multiple, with Munster and Cronin himself having learned from the prop’s one-month ban. Flanagan indicated yesterday that the province would implement “safeguards” against any possible similar incidences, focusing on the verification process when players take medicine and also around player education with regards to doping.

“‘No one likes being associated with a doping violation, let me be clear about that,” said Flanagan when asked if the episode has damaged Munster’s brand. “I am also very clear that we have very rigorous and stringent processes in place.

“Arguably, our process around prescribing medicine is more rigorous and has a paperwork trail and verification trail and so on – more so than a lot of other sports which operate an in-house pharmacy dispensing operation. So, I’m clear that we did everything properly.”

james-cronin Cronin served his one-month ban during the lockdown. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As for the financial conversation in Irish rugby at present – most notably in the negotiations between the IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland around possible pay cuts – Flanagan says Munster have “no direct input.”

Like all other non-playing staff in Irish rugby, Munster’s non-playing employees have taken a hit to their pay and been moved onto four-day working weeks. For Flanagan, this is all an unfortunate reality of the lockdown of rugby due to Covid-19.

“It’s not just Irish rugby that’s been impacted by this. We’ve seen similar measures to control costs, whether it’s in the form of salary deductions or pay deferrals, right across the world. So I don’t think anyone is surprised that this conversation is taking place at the moment.”

Flanagan prefers to look forward, stressing his hopes that Munster are “not as reliant on matchday income in future,” a reality that has been underlined by having no games in recent months.

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Thomond Park naming rights are still on the table for “the right partner” who can contribute to an increase in revenues but also offer other expertise, particularly in helping Munster “to grow internationally.”

He wants Munster to provide an improved “matchday experience” for supporters and sees room for improvement in how the province uses the “digital space” to connect with fans who can’t physically attend games.

“How we engage with Munster supporters who are outside Munster, who are outside Ireland, the global fanbase that’s out there – how we are able to replicate as much as we can do the matchday experience and bring them closer to the club and to engage with them in more relevant ways,” explains Flanagan.

As for the product on the pitch, the Munster CEO stresses that the province want trophies.

“I don’t think anyone is in any doubt about how ambitious we are, we want to win silverware.”

He is excited to welcome big-name signings Damian de Allende and RG Snyman to the party, while fullback Matt Gallagher has joined from Saracens.

Flanagan also points out this this summer will be the first full pre-season the coaching team of  Johann van Graan, Stephen Larkham, Graham Rowntree and JP Ferreira will have to work with their entire squad after the World Cup complicated matters last year.

peter-omahony-celebrates-his-try-with-team-mates Munster are targeting trophies with their improved squad. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Meanwhile, Flanagan is enthusiastic about the ever-growing influx of youngsters from West Cork in the Munster set-up, as well as having two Waterford players in the province’s academy.

“We want Munster to be visible and relevant everywhere in Munster as much as we can,” says Flanagan, who stresses that he would love to generate the funds to create more “genuine infrastructure” in parts of the province other than Limerick and Cork.

Flanagan says he’s not concerned about the fact that Munster have just one player from Limerick in their academy at present, instead suggesting it is a good sign.

“Rugby in Limerick is as strong as it ever was but we are absolutely seeing it as a positive that in addition to our strong Limerick base that we’re finding genuinely talented players [from elsewhere] to come into our academy.

“Obviously we have a limited number of slots in the academy and who we recruit depends very much on our long-term depth chart and talent succession planning, but we’re very clear that we’re finding players with the potential to wear the senior red shirt, and hopefully the green shirt of Ireland, in other parts of the province.

“We see that as a huge plus for the overall strength of rugby in the province and for the overall strength of Munster.”

While it hasn’t been all smooth sailing so far since joining last September, Flanagan is optimistic about Munster’s future.

“I think the genuine thrill for me is understanding when I arrived how everyone in our organisation, within our club, realises how special Munster is and what a privilege it is to work for Munster.

“It almost feels like it’s a vocation for our people and our staff and they genuinely love working for Munster and I can assure you having worked in lots of other sports that it’s not always the case.

“It’s our job to improve the club and try to get the message out to more people and bring more people into the Munster family, about what Munster is, what Munster represents and why it is so special.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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