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Irish rugby facing a long winter as reality bites in difficulty of resumption plan

Ruaidhri O'Connor



Big hit: RFU chief Bill Sweeney has outlined the financial impact of behind closed doors fixtures

Big hit: RFU chief Bill Sweeney has outlined the financial impact of behind closed doors fixtures

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Dr Éanna Falvey

Dr Éanna Falvey

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Big hit: RFU chief Bill Sweeney has outlined the financial impact of behind closed doors fixtures

Once upon a time, a friend was sitting through a meeting with his superiors. The topic was job progression and, eventually, his turn came to speak and he asked: "Will you be putting up hoops around the office for us to jump through as well?"

The anecdote came to mind when reading through World Rugby's 29-page document outlining the process the sport needs to go through in order to resume.

Taken in isolation, each point seems achievable. Well researched by professionals on top of their brief, it clearly explains the why and the how of what has to happen every step of the way.

However, taken in its totality, the document lays bare the scale of the challenge ahead for rugby's administrators, coaches and players as they look to return to the field of play in a world of social distancing.

Every month that passes represents lost millions for the sport.

Postponing the last two Six Nations matches cost the IRFU around €4.5m in revenue, while Leinster's game with Saracens would have generated more than €1m for the province.

Every weekend, another round of fixtures gets added to the pile of burnt cash.

Sporting bodies across the world are faced with similar questions, but few games require players being at such close physical quarters at all times than rugby, while others do not rely on matchday income to the same extent.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, the RFU's chief executive Bill Sweeney outlined the impact that playing behind closed doors or cancelling future fixtures will have on that organisation.

Eighty-five per cent of RFU income is generated by Test matches at Twickenham, while 81% of the IRFU's revenue comes from the senior men's international game.

He said the cancellation of the 2021 Six Nations would be "catastrophic", but even if it can proceed then it will suffer in a big way this year.

"If the autumn internationals go ahead, which are key for us, we will still lose £32million in revenue," Sweeney said.

"If they go ahead behind closed doors, that is a negative impact of £85m and if they are cancelled entirely that will be £107m on top of the £15m we have already lost. A very significant loss of revenue."

Although the IRFU's figures are not exactly in line with England's, they are in the same ball-park.

And if the ball-park is empty save for the 167 people deemed essential by World Rugby, then the financial picture remains grim.

Dr Éanna Falvey has clarified that the guidelines he co-authored do not dictate that matches will take place behind closed doors, but it clearly states that "Large traditional crowds are unlikely in the absence of an effective and freely available vaccine for Covid-19".

The ball is in the court of governments and the crowds will be dictated by the instructions on the size of public gatherings.

Across the globe, sport is beginning to take tentative first steps towards returning. As it stands, New Zealand's five Super Rugby teams will be first back, playing each other home and away over a 10-week competition behind closed doors.

Something similar is on the cards in the Republic of Ireland once the government moves to stage five of their recovery road map, currently planned for August 10.

Anything with an international element will prove more challenging, but rugby authorities are still hoping to conclude their unfinished competitions in September and October, with internationals coming thereafter.

The space is already finite and the situation will be precarious. One failed test in one team could derail the entire schedule.

The whole scenario is utterly precarious.

If games do take place without ticket income, then unions and clubs will look to benefactors, broadcasters and sponsors to fill the void.

However, the landscape has been changed significantly by the shut-down and one industry insider predicted that budgets will shrink by around 40%, taking rugby back 10 years in terms of its growth.

The value of TV-rights deals will fall as broadcasters feel the squeeze, while the sponsorship market was already challenging and will be adversely affected. The club benefactors, so crucial to the English and French games, are under pressure in the business world so that gravy train may dry up.

Cuts are inevitable. The IRFU's 10-50% pay deferral scheme bought it some time but, long-term, the large playing and non-playing staff budgets will come under pressure.

If the sport continues on hiatus, then the English union say they would need government support to continue. It remains to be seen if the IRFU would look for similar help.

Estimates of a €10m loss of revenue look conservative. If games go on behind closed doors and international competition is limited, then the Irish union and the provinces are in for a difficult winter.

The stars may find their wages under pressure, but they will ultimately be fine. It's the mid-range squad men who will find themselves at risk if squad sizes come down, with the wider support staff also under pressure. There are questions as to what it will mean for the women's, Sevens and under-age programmes.

Beneath the professional game, the clubs are also deprived of income and are struggling. The IRFU's €500,000 package won't go far.

Last summer, the union reported record revenues of €87.5m and it has always been a well-run ship. Other unions are in much worse shape, but matches and crowds are the life-blood of the organisation.

The path to a return is becoming clearer, but that clarity has exposed the complexity of playing elite sport once again.

To put on one match requires a whole lot of hoop jumping, to pull off a season is a major logistical exercise.

The future of the sport depends on them being able to get it right.

Belfast Telegraph