'Players are in the public spotlight, they have to behave accordingly'

Ireland international Sean O’Brien was sanctioned by the IRFU last month for inappropriate behaviour.

IRFU CEO PHILIP Browne says Irish rugby stars must understand that they are in the public eye and need to live up to the values the union aspires to.

Ireland international Sean O’Brien, who is in the closing months of his IRFU contract before a move to London Irish next season, was sanctioned by the union last month for inappropriate behaviour.

Sean O'Brien dejected after the game O'Brien was sanctioned by the IRFU last month. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

O’Brien allegedly urinated on a member of the public in a Dublin pub on Sunday 26 May, during Leinster’s celebrations of their Guinness Pro14 final victory over Glasgow Warriors the day before.

Browne said the incident was dealt with under “a normal HR disciplinary set-up” and that the player involved was “pretty contrite.”

While commenting that a line has been drawn under the incident, Browne stressed that high-profile players have a responsibility in the public eye.

“What we do is spend a lot of time working with Rugby Players Ireland [the players union] in trying to make sure that players understand they’re in the public spotlight, that they have to behave accordingly and that there are certain values that are important to the game, which underpin the game on and off the pitch,” said Browne yesterday at IRFU headquarters.

“You expect them to live up to those values but, by and large, our players are great ambassadors for the sport and for Ireland. They’re extremely approachable, they’re genuine, down-to-earth people and we’re fortunate in that regard.

“There’s churn in the player base all the time, so you can’t be complacent. You have to keep working at it.”

The IRFU’s values – as stated in the union’s latest strategic plan – are respect, integrity, inclusivity, fun and excellence.

Asked if he believed the incident involving such a high-profile player had damaged the public perception of rugby, Browne intimated that no sport was exempt from incidents of inappropriate behaviour.

“You’d rather it didn’t happen, to be honest, it doesn’t help,” said Brown.

“But most sports are populated by young people at the highest level and, at the end of the day, I don’t think any sport can claim to be purer than the driven snow in terms of how its athletes behave.

“At times, people are individuals and they make personal choices. At times, you wish they wouldn’t have made those choices but that’s the way it is. I don’t think we’re any different to any other sport and we just have to keep working at it.” 

Philip Browne IRFU CEO Philip Browne. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

With O’Brien being an IRFU-contracted player, the union carried out the investigation into the incident.

Separately, Leinster conducted an investigation into an incident the previous evening, Saturday 25 May, in which one of the province’s academy players was knocked unconscious by former player Stan Wright. 

Leinster subsequently released a statement saying that the investigation had “concluded to the satisfaction of all parties and, as a result, we will not be making any further comment on the incident other than to confirm that the player in question received medical attention and that he has made a full recovery.”

Browne underlined that the IRFU – which recorded its best-ever financial year in 2018/19 – had not been directly involved in that investigation and that the union had concerned itself only with the incident involving the centrally-contracted player.

“At the end of the day, that’s for Leinster,” said Browne. “They dealt with it and they were happy it was dealt with appropriately and it never came to us. We dealt with the incident we had to take responsibility for and we’re happy with how it was dealt with.” 

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