What to do with the old ground is the most vexed of many issues occupying the minds of the hierarchy, and if ever a game is set to highlight the inadequacies of Irish rugby's spiritual home it is the upcoming Six Nations match against England. Traditionally the game which is in most demand, were it to become a winner-takes-all Grand Slam decider, would be the biggest game the old ground has ever hosted, even if it is not nearly grand enough to hold it.
With its 49,000 capacity, of which only 24,000 are seated, Lansdowne Road's stature is hardly commensurate with Ireland's standing on the pitch. By comparison, Stade de France is an 80,000 all-seater, Twickenham seats 75,000, and the Millennium Stadium 72,000.
Even the comparison with Murrayfield's 67,500 all-seater is instructive. For the Scotland-Ireland game this season, it is estimated the Scottish union generated roughly 2.5 million more than the IRFU will for the England game in gate receipts. As a rough guide, the lack of a modern-day, all-seater stadium is costing the IRFU about 2 million a match.
"The other side of that is the cost of running a 65,000-seater, capacity stadium," Browne points out. As things stand, so to speak, Lansdowne Road commands only five full-time staff, whereas Murrayfield would require 15. "So the reality is, that gross (2 million) is not net. But yes, we could be earning more."
Lansdowne Road's relative inadequacies place severe restrictions on the union's planning for major Test matches. For example, two years ago the English union asked if they could increase their allocation of 4,800 tickets, of which 2,000 are seated, to 7,000. Other unions have a similar arrangement, but the IRFU couldn't oblige.
Worse still, though, is that while Irish rugby has probably never had more popular appeal, its ability to tap into a new well of support is also restricted.
"There's a public out there who don't have access to international match tickets, but who want to see international rugby."Browne cites the European Cup quarter-final between Leinster and Biarritz (April 12th), which is set to draw a record crowd of more than 40,000, as further evidence of this. For those who might consider exploring the possibility of buying tickets for the English game, the message from a long while ago would have been: "Don't bother."
He agrees the union "don't even bother" to tap into this reserve of support. "We just don't have the tickets," he says.
The exceptions are some of the autumn internationals, with the obligation to actively sell tickets for the Argentinian game last November resulting in thousands of supporters turning up at Lansdowne Road who'd never been there before.
"But that is why I have a bone with the ticket allocation system we have at the moment which allows clubs to pick and choose which matches they would like to go to. They can't have it every way. We'd like to create genuine loyalty schemes, whereby people who come to lesser matches get the bigger matches as well."
The entire allocation of tickets for Six Nations games is taken up by the clubs, via the provincial branches, and to compound this, it has long since been known some clubs sell tickets to agents for inflated prices - to all intents and purposes, touting.
Browne promises a tougher line on offending clubs. "We're introducing guidelines to clubs and certainly if we have evidence of mis-use of tickets, we will dock clubs their allocation."
The IRFU, having thrown their eggs in the three-year distraction that was Abbotstown, are back at square one with no plan B and Browne, who joined the union in 1992, seems almost weary of the stadium issue. The IRFU and the FAI have jointly commissioned an independent investigation and report by Arup Consultant Engineers, with the two sporting bodies endeavouring to go back to the Government with proposals by the end of March or early April.
The first item on the agenda is a location.
"They are looking at what is and what's not possible in terms of Lansdowne Road, or Newlands or any other sites out there, because the key thing is what is possible inside Lansdowne Road, if anything."
"I'm blue in the face telling people that it's a very tight site. It has a railway, residential property, a river and a road bounding it, and it also has two tenant clubs."
The union are also fearful of incurring a sizeable debt in order to service a new stadium while maintaining Ireland's standing in the global game. Yet, Browne also concedes the union's operations have stalled somewhat, and won't move forward again until the stadium issue is resolved.
"Until we get this sorted out, it's going to be a shadow over our whole ability to plan and finance the game."
With the West Stand 50 years old, and the East Stand 20 years old, the ground has a limited lifespan. It is a constant juggling act, and their cash-flow problems of this and next season (with a projected loss of 11 million) have been well documented.
Seven years after the game went professional you sense rugby in general and Irish rugby particularly is at something of another crossroads. Decisions taken now will determine the next phase of professionalism.
With regard to this year's World Cup it is, says Browne, effectively "five to midnight. The planning for the 2003 World Cup is a given." The union are planning for the 2007 and 2011 tournaments. Uppermost in their minds are maximising a small playing base, identifying young talent through provincial player development officers, and maintaining a professional game.
More than ever, there's a palpable acceptance the international team is the flagship and, so, is relatively immune from cost-cutting. Yet, there are limits, and the union are harbouring fears of the flight of the Wild Geese after World Cup season, which may have been a factor in the attempt to jettison Connacht and thereby free up their playing budget for leading players in the other provinces.
The flip side of Ireland's success, coupled with the province's strong showings in Europe, is that players in the top and lower tier will be approached by leading French and English clubs. The union will have to up the ante again, but are hoping they will again have other carrots to dangle in front of Brian O'Driscoll and co.
"We certainly have put player welfare at the top of the list of our priorities. This weekend, most of our national squad will be rested. Unfortunately fellas who have to go back to England won't be rested," Browne points out. "We have also helped set up IRUPA (the players' union) because we believe it is better to work with players and put systems in place that look after their career welfare, because all of these guys will have a career after rugby."
In tandem with player welfare, the union have centralised fitness and medical programmes, and highlighted the system's emphasis on ensuring longer and healthier playing careers.
"If a player wants to move there's nothing you or I or anyone else can do to stop them. We obviously can't meet some of the financial inducements offered by bigger English or French clubs through their private owners. What we can do is offer the players a professional rugby career which rewards them well, and is going to ensure they are in the best possible condition for international and provincial rugby."
Another bone of contention within the IRFU committee, which is reputedly raising the hackles of some who envisage a diminution of their executive power, is the proposal to set up a full-time management committee as part of the union's ongoing strategic review.
From the outside there would seem to be a conflict within a multi-million pound industry where the full-time professional staff are answerable to the committee/volunteer force.
"It's impossible to run a professional game and a professional organisation if every decision has to wait for a committee meeting," admits Browne, though in reality, he maintains, the officer group make decisions in between committee meetings and this proposal merely formalises this.
"Having said that we're very conscious that the game in Ireland is effectively held in trust by the union committee on behalf of the 200 or 250 clubs, and the 12,000 adults and the 30,000 kids and 16,500 youth players. There will still be a committee, it will end up setting policy, it will agree budgets, it will effectively set strategy, but there will now be a structure for implementation."
This presumes the review of the union's own self-governance, for which a draft plan will be drawn up by the end of April, is finally approved by the IRFU committee and council in turn.
As big as the aforementioned is the game at schools and club level."That is absolutely vital," says Browne. "If we don't get that right it's going to create huge problems for us down the road. What we have to do is ensure the competition structures are right. We have to ensure that the finances are right. All our finance is spent on putting the supports in, in terms of the Clubs of Ireland scheme, coaching supports, referee supports, playing supports. But we can't fund the budgets for clubs," Browne adds. "What we can do is ensure we try to set models for them, and maybe do a bit more work in terms of administration, to help clubs."
Increasingly, the union needs to be more than just a source of money,and the clubs have probably never needed the union more than they do now.
(Article reproduced courtesy of The Irish Times).