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State of the Nation

State of the Nation

IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne talks about the continuing challenges that face rugby in Ireland and its future goals. Click here for more.

Running the affairs of the rugby nation, much like the state, is always going to be a work in progress. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a state of the rugby nation’ interview with Philip Browne, Chief Executive of the Irish Rugby Football Union, can be summarised as a lot done, more to do’.

Browne asserted that Irish rugby was in reasonable’ shape, though it should be pointed out this was three days before, not after, the South Africa match. Even still, without denying that there are some major issues to be dealt with, this would appear to be a masterclass in understatement.

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Probably the two stand-out things done in the recent past are achieving a degree of certainty on the stadium, and agreeing (for the first time) a strategy document which will serve as the steering wheel for the next four years.

The stadium, he pointed out, is critical. The professional game subvents the club and school game to the tune of 9m per annum. The current stadium simply can’t do this, so it is imperative that it happens.

The strategy document outlines some pretty aggressive objectives such as reaching the semi-finals of the next World Cup, achieving a participation of 100,000 (from 85,000 currently) against a backdrop of falling adult numbers, winning a Six-Nations, a Heineken Cup and two Celtic Leagues. Browne stands over all these as attainable rather than a reach for the stars and you might get the moon’ display of goal-setting.

Most of the goals that are down there are attainable. We’ve been reaching World Cup quarter-finals, and it’s a short step from there to the semi-finals. Nonetheless, most will consider it unfortunate that we happened to draw the All-Blacks in the quarter-finals, as they are as yet the only international side that this team has yet to gain a win over.

In terms of the participation goal, he disagrees with the naysayers. The difficulty is with retention of the underage kids into the adult game. We’ve done a huge amount of work and are now reaching 35-40,000 primary age kids through our Coca Cola Tag Rugby programme. And not just in the traditional areas. We are delivering rugby to 3,000 kids in the Tallaght area on a weekly basis. The difficulty will be in ensuring that the clubs are in position to cope with the bulge that is making its way through the system.

If this sounds too good to be true for the clubs, it is tempered with the acceptance that many of the clubs are facing difficult circumstances. Some clubs are struggling, particularly at the junior level, for a variety of reasons, many of them societal. People are now doing a half an hour on the treadmill instead of going training. However, many clubs have concentrated on their first team to the detriment of the remainder of the club. What we are seeing, though, is the emergence of community clubs that have a natural hinterland. We’ve set up groups in each province that are working with the clubs to help them to help themselves’. No sport can be entirely funded from the centre. Clubs that are doing the business in terms of participation are getting the funding. We have club development officers working directly with the clubs to ensure they are running to the best of their ability. But direct intervention doesn’t really work – the Soviet Union is the proof of that.

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that clubs without that natural hinterland’ are facing a difficult future. The young population isn’t living in Dublin 4 any more. They’re in outlying areas and that’s where the real dynamism is coming from.

On this score, Browne doesn’t rule out mergers, but, he says, the critical thing is that we don’t lose the history and tradition of these clubs. We will help them in whatever they want to do, but it’s going to be difficult for them.

The strategy document was delivered after a considerable period of consultation, which Browne sees as the Union’s approach going forward. He cites the experience of the clubs’ input also in the re-development of the AIB League as a further example. I put it to him that it projects forward on the basis of the stadium being completed by 2008, which many would consider fanciful, given the country that’s in it. Any delays in getting the stadium redevelopment completed will mean that financing will be pushed out further but it’sa manageable situation, is Browne’s response.

In terms of the inevitable talk of playing in Croke Park in the interim, Browne’s bat is admirably straight. All I can deal with is the deck of cards that are laid out on the table in front of me, and Croke Park isn’t among those. We are talking to the other unions and make arrangements for playing our games away from home, and funnily enough, those plans are quite workable. We know exactly what the situation is, but it’s really a matter for the GAA themselves. But clearly there are contacts ongoing in this area.

In terms of marketing the game, Browne again reverts to the importance of the national side. No amount of marketing spend can replace team performance on Lansdowne Road. We get our fair share of TV and newsprint, and we do very well on the commercial side. A recent Amarach survey demonstrates that our sponsors are getting bangs for their buck and we are considered a good and professional organisation to deal with. But what Philip Browne does isn’t going to have any effect on a guy going down to Clonakilty rugby club. What Brian O’Driscoll does may have.

I put it to him that it must be a source of frustration that the Irish press haven’t truly acknowledged the scale of what has been achieved. It is recognised in the sporting world that we punch above our weight and have done for some time. The professional game has allowed us to put in place systems and backup that enables players to fulfil their potential. We have been fortunate in terms of our structure. Small can sometimes be beautiful. You can be very focussed about what you do.

Browne points to the 1999 World Cup as the real turning point for Irish rugby. After the 1999 World Cup, we realised we had only been half-professional and that we needed to embrace it fully. Otherwise it was really just a wasted investment. Professional sport is all about performance, it’s not about participation. So we took the decision in 1999 to invest in it properly.

The investment comes in the form of players, retaining our players, and support structures and support staff for four professional sides under the national team. That has been the key change and that has been a good investment. The performances of the four provincial teams and the national team over the past four years stand testimony to that.
We’ve managed to get consistency in our performance and have managed to beat some of the best teams in the world, but the bar is high and sometimes you tip the bar. There is nothing wrong with the sporting public wanting the best and having that ambition. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing.

Browne doesn’t shirk the thorny issue of the funding of four professional sides as opposed to three. We need to ensure the tide rises for everyone but there will be a much greater onus on the professional sides to generate their own revenues, because we have to protect the national team. We are running a deficit of 3million and don’t have money to throw into the provinces. Professional sport is about performance, including commercial performance. Each of the provinces over the next two years needs to wash its own face from its own income – gate receipts, sponsorship, commercial activities and hospitality. We will contribute the players, in the same way as the RFU does in England.
Like I said – a lot done, more to do’.

Interview with Adrian O’Farrell