DUBLIN, IRELAND – On the surface, 2013 has been a decent year for Irish rugby. Though the national side struggled during the Six Nations, they did record a notable victory over Wales in Cardiff. The British and Irish Lions had a strong Irish contingent, led by Johnny Sexton, who started all three Tests, and Brian O’Driscoll, who memorably did not. Leinster and Ulster met in the Pro12 final, and you’d have a very difficult time finding a credible source that didn’t believe those two teams were the best of the league and deserved to contest the final match. All four teams played respectably in Europe. Though Leinster were unable to storm to a record three-peat in the Heineken Cup, they cruised to victory in the Amlin Cup following their elimination from the first competition. Ulster also performed admirably, and though Munster endured a down year on the domestic front, their form was respectable enough in wider European competition when they were pitted against English and French sides. Even Connacht, traditionally the minnow of Irish rugby, matched their best ever finish in the Pro12 and managed to beat Biarritz in the Heineken Cup. So what is the focus of the Irish rugby world as we approach the new season?
Unfortunately, the answer has almost nothing to do with the successes of last season or the potential successes of this season. Instead, everybody is focusing on money. The IRFU reported this week that they will have to take out almost 26 million euros in loans to keep operations afloat, having failed to hit their targets for “debenture” ticket sales. Debenture operates in a manner similar to American season tickets, entitling the rights holder the opportunity to attend all home games during a set period of time (in this case, 10 years). The IRFU expected to make 40 million euros from the sale of these tickets. Instead, they managed to make 14 million.
The consequences of these shortcomings have already partially manifested. The IRFU operates on a central contracting basis, meaning that the money for all four teams comes out of one pot. Not having enough money in this pot results in disastrous consequences for the provincial sides, such as Leinster. Johnny Sexton was allowed to defect to Racing Metro after the IRFU was unable to match the French team’s offer to the star fly-half. Difficult as it was to see a British and Irish Lion abandon his boyhood side for the riches of Paris, it is hard to blame Sexton. Professional athletes have a finite existence, and it is Sexton’s responsibility to ensure that he is able to take care of himself and his family following his career. While rugby must avoid the financial absurdities of modern soccer, baseball, and other sports, the status of paid professional does carry significance. Sexton repeatedly made his desire to remain at Leinster clear, but when they were unable to offer a competitive salary, he was forced to make a decision and he has now left Dublin behind.
The IRFU and other unions must accept that professionalization creates new responsibilities. Central contracting may no longer be a viable option. While the ties between the IRFU and provinical sides run deep, it may be time for private investment to enter the conversation. France has begun to tread down this path, and though there have been consequences on the national stage, it is hard to argue that the pairing of Toulon and Cleremont in last year’s Heineken Cup final was not at least partially a result of the private investment that those club’s owners have been willing to put forth.
It is unlikely that club rugby will ever surpass international rugby in prominence. However, a symbiotic relationship clearly exists between national and provincial sides, and the IRFU would do well to begin to explore options that do not necessarily result in their best players leaving the country, and avoid following the example of the Welsh, who will lose three Lions to other nations this upcoming season (Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate will join Sexton at Racing Metro, and George North will be moving to Northampton). Money is in the game to stay. Rapidly, it is becoming a matter of adapt or perish, and if the IRFU’s club sides are to dream of repeating their European adventures in future years, the national union must fall in line.