Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
# spending power
'The reality is that we are not going to be able to match France'
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne is aware of the ever-growing threat from the Top 14.

THE MORE EXPERIENCED heads at the IRFU have probably had a decent night or two on the vin rouge in Paris during the Six Nations, but there is an increasing wariness towards French rugby at the Irish HQ.

A recurring theme at yesterday evening’s IRFU council meeting in the Aviva Stadium – as an encouraging financial report for 2014/15 was issued – was the ever-growing threat of French spending power.

Paul O'Connell James Crombie / INPHO Paul O'Connell will earn over €1 million in his two years at Toulon. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

There simply don’t seem to be limits to what the likes of Toulon will dish out to get the players they want, and the IRFU have responded as best they can after ending the financial season in a far better position than had been originally forecasted.

A total of €4 million will be injected into the provincial and club game from next season onwards, €3.2 million of that going to boost Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster’s ability to pay the wages that will keep their stars at home and produce more of those stars.

Even still, IRFU chief executive Philip Brown is realistic about the financial challenge.

The reality is that we are not going to be able to match France,” said Browne. “If any of the French clubs go on a shopping spree, then they go on a shopping spree. We are not in a position to match them.

“All we can do is our damndest to keep the key players that make our provinces competitive and the key players in the national team we want to protect as well. Because if we don’t do that, and have our key international players playing abroad, then we can’t control their game management or a whole lot of things.

“If that impacts the performance of the national team it will ultimately impact the provinces as well, so it is about getting the balance right. It is something we are constantly tweaking and discussing with the provinces and with Joe Schmidt.”

An €8.7 million surplus for 2014/15 is what has left the IRFU in the position to slightly augment the provinces’ budgets, and Browne was keen to stress how positive a development that was.

In 2013, the IRFU revealed a projected €26 million loss in earnings from the sale of five- and 10-year tickets for the Aviva Stadium. That meant plans to borrow to borrow the €26 million up until 2020 – the date for the next sale of long-term tickets – were made, the intention being to keep the national and provincial squads competitive.

Philip Browne Dan Sheridan / INPHO Browne at yesterday's IRFU council meeting. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

However, unprojected boosts to the IRFU’s income over the last two seasons mean that they now forecast that their maximum borrowing up to 2020 looks like being more in the region of €15 million.

“The €26 million was the facility we were going to have to take out with the banks to maintain our current level of activity,” said Browne.

“The national team won the Six Nations two years in a row, so that has helped enormously. Secondly, we sold out the 10-year tickets that were still on the market this year. We had anticipated in our long-term forecast that we might only sell half of them, which was the experience back in 2013.

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“We’ve had a new television deal with Sky in relation to the autumn internationals, which has generated more moneys than previously. All these little things are chipping away at it, so effectively our maximum borrowing now out to 2020 is in the region of €15 million, which is good news.

That is part and parcel of why we were in a position to make a greater investment in the game next year.”

While the annual €3.2 million boost for the provinces over the coming seasons will bolster their ability to offer competitive wages to key players, Browne is also keen to see the additional money sunk into the development of young players.

Performance director David Nucifora will have a key role in working with Connacht, Leinster, Ulster and Munster in that regard, as Irish rugby looks to ensure its production line doesn’t slow.

“It allows us to start putting a little bit more money into the academy system and the elite player pool,” said Browne. “What we’re trying to do with David Nucifora is drive the high-performance system through the age groups so that we have contact with kids at an earlier age.

Matt D'Arcy scores a try Billy Stickland / INPHO Munster's Matt D'Arcy came through the domestic game. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“We’ve got more screening camps on the ground, that allows us to identify them very early and start to bring them into the high-performance system in terms of strength and conditioning, and getting them to think about the game a little bit more professionally.

“It obviously allows us to put a bit more money into the provinces who are all struggling to some extent in terms of financial pressures that are coming to bear because of the money in France.

“So it’s about all those things, it’s really around the high-performance system and player contracts where that money goes.”

The remaining €800k of the €4million boost from the IRFU will go towards the domestic amateur game, much of the spending being focused on the recent research into player drop-off led by Scott Walker, their director of rugby development and the club game.

In relation to the domestic side of the game there are plans to do more, in terms of both staffing and we’ve been doing a lot of work through Scott Walker in the past 18 months with the ESRI,” said Browne.

“We’re in a position where we have matched up census information with our own information in relation to what is actually happening on the ground. So we’re in a position to make evidence-based decisions as opposed to intuitive decisions, and that will require some further investigation.

“I think all of that is important. We’ve taken the view that we could have put €4m into the professional game, but we’re not just about the professional game.

“If we neglect the grass roots and the amateur game it will come back to haunt us in a few year’s time.”

That and the French clubs perhaps. Positive signs for the IRFU financially, but they’re more aware than anyone that the war is not won.

Read the IRFU’s Annual Report for 2014/15 here.

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