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IRFU are not ruling out option of moving Ireland's matches abroad

Staging Ireland matches temporarily in Belfast also a possibility if UK government decides to open up events to fans.

Empty seats in rugby stadiums are causing financial strain for the IRFU.
Empty seats in rugby stadiums are causing financial strain for the IRFU.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

PHILIP BROWNE, THE chief executive of the IRFU, is refusing to dismiss the idea of using Ulster’s Kingspan Stadium for Ireland’s home games if the UK government decides to relax its policy on spectators attending sporting events.

Under current guidelines, games here are strictly played behind closed doors. The situation is slightly different in Northern Ireland, where up to 400 fans can attend matches. However, Browne immediately pointed out that those numbers are way too small to justify any venue change for an international fixture.

Yet in a hypothetical scenario, whereby the UK or even the French government allowed fans back into stadiums, the IRFU would be prepared to consider the idea of temporarily moving Ireland’s matches abroad.

They have six home matches scheduled between now and March and under current government guidelines, all six will be played behind closed doors.

“We will look at all options, but at this point in time the situation in the UK and France is the same as here,” he said.

“If there’s a divergence and stadiums are opened up in the UK, it would be foolish not to look at the opportunities there but we’d have to look at it in the commercial context within which we operate.

“In the event that we were faced with those sort of scenarios, I think you have to sit down with your partners, discuss it out and find solutions.

But personally I don’t think it’s going to happen because at present in the north you are allowed 400 people in an event and to be honest the cost of moving from the Aviva Stadium up to Ravenhill to have 400 spectators doesn’t make any sense anyway.

“So I think at the moment we’re certainly operating on the basis of working in the Aviva Stadium.”

He continued: “What we need to do is try and get ourselves into a situation where we can generate revenues. One of the big issues is it’s not just the IRFU that are in difficulty, it is equally difficult for the four provinces – because they are totally reliant on paying spectators.

“Their income is largely based on gate receipts and sponsorship income and any sort of merchandising that adds to that around their own matches. The central funds from the tournaments they participate in come to the IRFU and are used to offset the costs of the players’ salaries.”

And unless the situation improves soon, there is the distinct possibility of pay cuts or job losses throughout the game.

“We are in constant dialogue with Rugby Players Ireland,” Browne said, “and came to an arrangement with the players in relation to a salary cut up to Christmas. We said we would review the situation in December and the scenario then will depend on how we view the cost structure around the professional game.

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“Inevitably if there is a continuing difficulty we will have to pare back costs within the professional game and inevitably that means salaries.”

In this scenario, Ireland’s best players could be tempted by the Top 14, particularly by those clubs with billionaire owners who are willing to pay big salaries. “France are a law unto themselves to some extent in the way in which the club system works there,” Browne said. “We can only afford what we can afford.”

As things stand, the IRFU have an unwritten rule in place, whereby Andy Farrell can only select home-based players. Economic reality may result in players leaving, though. In this scenario, would the rule on overseas-based players change?

simon-zebo-scores-his-sides-fourth-try Simon Zebo has not been selected for Ireland since he transferred to Racing. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Listen at the end of the day, we’re a pragmatic organisation, we’ll do what we need to do in order to get the possible result for Irish rugby and for the game here,” said Browne.

“But at this point in time that’s not a consideration.”

All of this leaves the private investment offer from CVC to have a stake in the Six Nations all the more tempting, not just for Ireland but all the teams in the tournament. The investment company have already bought into the Pro14.

“Firstly, the CVC deal with the Pro14 is hugely important,” said Browne. “That money has simply been absorbed now by the provinces, the first tranche, just to cover their losses and the cash position that they’re all facing at the moment. Any future tranches are going to shore up the provinces and their cash position. 

“In relation to the Six Nations, there’s no deal done as yet. There’s a lot of good discussion going on between CVC and the Six Nations. If it happens that would be welcome but equally these things are complicated and again we’re operating in a  situation where the environment is changing on a continual basis and so until we actually see the money in the bank, you certainly couldn’t be planning on the basis of any deal being done there.”

Browne added: “Then, in terms of private equity across the provinces, we’re looking at all these sort of issues and all these sort of opportunities. We have an obligation to do so and I think it’s the right thing to do and so at this stage all four provinces are working really closely with us here in the IRFU, looking at how do we resolve some of the issues that are out there and what opportunities out there, and there are undoubtedly private equity opportunities.”

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Garry Doyle

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