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'We've been waiting for this battle for the last 17 years': IRFU chief on Heineken Cup

Philip Browne says that the Heineken Cup situation has been coming since 1995.

Browne is worried about Irish rugby's financial future.
Browne is worried about Irish rugby's financial future.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

IRFU CHIEF EXECUTIVE Philip Browne says a “broader view of the game” must be taken as the Heineken Cup mess rumbles on. Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time last night, Browne highlighted the dangerous financial position Irish rugby faces if the Heineken Cup fails.

As the English and French maintain that they will leave the European competition at the end of this season, the IRFU’s top man explained the difference between his union’s approach to that of the Premiership and Top 14 clubs. Browne says the threatened breakaway is a “very serious situation” for world rugby.

“I think one of the issues really is that in France and England, professional rugby is paid for by club owners, in the 14 clubs in France and the 12 clubs in England. Whereas in the other unions in Europe, it’s largely paid for by the unions themselves.

“For instance, in Ireland we pump about €23 million into Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht in order to fund the professional game, whereas that doesn’t happen in England. The professional players are paid for by clubs, and the clubs then lend the players to their unions for the international team. So it’s a different philosophy.”

Browne stressed the fact that the IRFU controls every level of rugby in this country, meaning the international team remains absolutely vital to the health of the provincial sides. Without sugar daddy owners, the provinces, clubs and schools are heavily reliant on the Ireland team for ongoing funding.

“Our philosophy in Ireland is that we are at the face of the entire game from clubs and schools right up to the international team. And the international team generates about 85% of the revenues for Irish rugby as a totality.”

When it was put to Browne that the English and French clubs’ insistence that they will leave the Heineken Cup may be a bluff, he revealed that the IRFU have been expecting this situation ever since the game became a professional sport.

“Listen, this is an argument that has gone on since 1995, when the game first became professional. The reality is that we’ve been waiting for this battle to happen for the last 17 years and I suppose we’re now at a point where the club owners in England and France are saying, ‘We want to control the professional game in Europe. We will leave some room for those we want to bring on board.’

“That, I think, is the issue and the issue for us in Ireland is that if we lose control of the professional game, it will have an impact on our international team. If it does have an impact on our international team, then the revenue stream which funds the entire game in this country is at risk.”

imageJean-Pierre Lux and the ERC will host a meeting of the Heineken Cup stakeholders on the 23rd of October. ©INPHO/James Crombie

Negotiation frustration

The IRB’s insistence yesterday that a pan-European competition needs to be maintained was a timely boost for Browne and his allies. The IRB chief executive Brett Gosper said rugby’s ruling body wants an all-inclusive tournament to continue beyond this season.

Browne was appreciative to hear of the IRB’s support.

“At the end of the day, what we all have to do is take a responsible attitude and try to find a solution. Part of the problem has been that we have been in negotiations since September last year, but it’s very hard to negotiate with people who really aren’t there to negotiate at all. I think the IRB’s intervention was very helpful.

“I think there’s a lot of work going on in the background to see if we can try to find some way of reaching a solution. I understand some of the issues clubs in England and France have around meritocracy and around the financial distributions. These are things that can be sorted out, but ultimately we have to take a broader view of the game. It’s not just about the bottom line in a club, it’s about the well-being of the entire game.”

Quizzed about the possibility of Ireland losing its top players to the huge wealth of the French clubs, Browne gave very little away. Instead, he again stressed the need to “to maintain our position within the European cup” and highlighted the fact that the Irish players want to play at the top level.

“I think with the cheque books in France, we’re not going to be able to solve that one here today.”

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Murray Kinsella

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