For over 128 years Irish rugby has been governed by the IRFU through a federal system of Provincial Branches providing a democratic strand, which runs through the game from bottom to top. The fact that this is so says something about the ethos of rugby and the wisdom of its voluntary administrators over the years who have managed to maintain rugby as a unifying force throughout the island despite many turbulent episodes.
The focus of rugby in Ireland for the majority of participants is the Club game. The IRFU has assisted in the development of the club and schools game throughout the island by applying its financial resources, generated in the main by the activities of the National Team. Today, the playing numbers stand at some 13,000 adults, of whom 31% are based in Ulster, 25% in Munster, 37% in Leinster and 7% in Connacht. The Under-18 playing figures of some 37,000 are distributed similarly with 30% in Ulster, 23% in Munster, 36% in Leinster and 11% in Connacht.
This year some 10m will be spent on game development for the benefit of clubs and schools. From this seed, together with the enthusiasm of local Club volunteers, has grown the success of clubs like, Clonakilty, Connemara, Barnhall and Ballinahinch. Through the direct investment in personnel the IRFU has delivered rugby development on the ground to Clubs and Schools, spending some 4.6 since 1997 in direct employment of personnel in all four Branches in the following proportions: - Ulster 25%, Munster 27%, Leinster 28% and Connacht 19%. The benefits have been a growth in participation numbers and most importantly early introduction to the game in an increasing number of schools - so vital to the long-term future of rugby as a sporting pastime.
The administrative funding provided by the IRFU to the Branches is also vital and since 1997 some 2.4m has been made available to the Branches in the following proportions:- Ulster 25%, Munster 25%, Leinster 24% and Connacht 26%. The game needs a strong administrative base particularly in an ever more complex environment where society demands effective and responsible delivery of sport.
The IRFU has, as can be seen from these figures, made a significant direct commitment to all four Branches in relation to growing and administering the game. Contrary to some comment over the last few weeks the support given to the development of the game in Connacht, in proportion to its population, outweighs that given to its sister Provinces. For example, Connacht has had 19 % of the allocation for Development personnel, while Ulster has had 25 %, Munster 27 % and Leinster 28%, set against playing populations in the 10 to 19 years age group of 30% (Ulster), 23 % (Munster), 36 % (Leinster) and 11 % in Connacht.
The IRFU has financed this expansion of the game and its development programmes through income generated by the professional game and particularly from the performance of the National team in the Six Nations championship. If the National Team is not competitive the integrity of the Championship would be affected in the eyes of the broadcasters, sponsors and other participating Unions with potentially devastating consequences for IRFU revenues, which ultimately will affect the ability of the IRFU to finance the Schools and Club game. The sole reason for embracing the professional game was to safeguard the ability of the National Team to remain competitive and thereby safeguard IRFU income and also to ensure the National team remains the key promotional tool.
The IRFU used the Provinces as the vehicle to ensure the situation evolved in a controlled fashion. Since 1997 the four Professional squads have evolved from semi-professional operations to full blown professional operations. In 1997 the cost of the professional game at Provincial level was 4.3m. This year the cost will be 19.9. A lesson was learned in 1999, following the experience of the RWC loss to Argentina in Lens. It is not enough simply to put together a full-time squad of players you also need to have the extensive support structures and personnel to get the best from the squad of players. It was also recognised that having our international players based in Ireland was the only way to ensure that the National Team objectives could be prioritised - vital to ensure National Team competitiveness. The IRFU therefore spent considerable resources bringing key players home to Ireland and the consequences of this approach has been the significant improvement in the performance of the National Team supported by the success of the Provincial Teams. The commitment of the players, coaches and support personnel has been vital to this progress but it has also been underpinned by a huge financial cost influenced by international market forces. Since 1997 some 39.5m has been spent on the professional game at Provincial level. The breakdown of this investment is as follows: - Ulster 28%, Munster 29%, Leinster 26% and Connacht 18% with lower investment in Connacht largely due to the fact it has had few international players in its squad.
This year the IRFU will earn 35m and some 19.9m of this income will be spent on the professional game with player costs amounting to 11m. The professional game worldwide is facing challenges against a backdrop of escalating costs and a stagnant commercial environment. The transition to a sustainable professional game is not over and in this context Irish rugby has to face up to two key questions:
1 - can it sustain the professional game from a playing base of 13,000 adults?2 - can it financially resource the professional game adequately to ensure competitive professional squads and National Team?
In Ireland, from an adult playing base of 13,000, four professional teams are run albeit that 33 of the current 122 full time professional players in Ireland learned their rugby in other countries. These players have been essential in supporting the Irish professional system and have done a fine job for Irish rugby, some having played for Ireland. In Australia with a playing base of 46,000 adults there are three professional teams, in England with a playing base of 174,000 adults there are 14 professional teams; New Zealand has just 5 professional sides, Scotland has 3. Irish rugby has to ascertain what number of professional teams it can truly sustain with its playing base.
Looking forwards the IRFU has to adjust its spending as a deficit in excess of 7m, as forecast for next year on current expenditure patterns, is not sustainable. The deficit has to be tackled by increasing revenues and by reducing costs in all areas of the game and its administrative overhead. However there has to be a balanced reduction across both the professional and amateur club game or else that ever so important symbiotic balance between the professional game and the amateur game will be upset. If the cost reductions are mainly at the expense of the amateur club game the playing base will be affected - where will our future professional players come from. If the cost reductions are at the expense of the professional game the competitiveness of our professional teams will be impacted with the risk of key players moving abroad and consequential impact on revenues. Neither scenario is palatable.
The challenge for Irish rugby and the IRFU in traversing these tricky waters is, to ensure that there is a financially sound base to the game, to ensure that the professional game remains sufficiently resourced to maintain its competitiveness and finally to ensure that the club and schools game continues to be supported in fulfilling its role of providing rugby as a sporting pastime to communities across the island.