The IRFU has not begun contract negotiations with its players as a result of the uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic.
Union chief Philip Browne has written to players outlining the organisation’s position.
While he acknowledges that the individuals in question would like certainty with regard to their future beyond next summer, he says the financial challenges brought about by the ban on spectators at stadiums mean the IRFU must proceed with caution.
Leading Ireland stars Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls are all out of contract at the end of the season, while a large number of provincial stalwarts are also up in June 2021.
When contacted by Independent.ie, the IRFU issued the following statement in conjunction with Rugby Players Ireland.
“The IRFU and RPI confirm that we are in continuing dialogue about a range of Covid issues including how best to proceed with contracting of players in light of IRFU financial uncertainty,” it read.
The decision to delay negotiations will put English, French and Japanese clubs on high alert, but they too are struggling as a result of the pandemic with a number of Premiership club owners warning they may go out of business this winter if fans are not permitted to attend matches soon.
The financial picture appears to be better in France where wealthy club owners continue to bankroll the big sides and some crowds have been allowed to attend matches.
The IRFU, who have largely been successful in retaining its top talent in recent years, would normally begin discussions with its top players by now but the picture is very different in 2020.
In July, Irish-based players earning more than €25,000 a year accepted a 10% salary reduction until December 31 with a further 10% deferred until that date, with 5% subject to a retrospective salary reduction pending the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Non-playing staff were put on a four-day week in June, effectively reducing their salary by 20%.
The agreement came after a long series of meetings between the IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland that involved the players union gaining access to the governing body’s accounts to assess the financial picture.
Browne has publicly described the union’s financial position as perilous and told a Dáil Committee last month “the very existence of professional rugby on the island would be under significant threat” as a result of this “unprecedented cash-flow crisis”.
“Irish Rugby’s net losses in 2020 as a result of COVID-19 are catastrophic and are forecasted to be in excess of €30m, despite the implementation of the cuts and initiatives previously mentioned,” he told TDs.
Although the sport returned behind closed doors on August 21 and the completion of the Guinness PRO14, Heineken Champions Cup and Six Nations will be a help, the union badly needs bums on seats to get back on a firm financial footing.
With the whole of Ireland now operating under Level 5 restrictions for the next six weeks, there is no chance of fans attending Ireland’s home matches against Italy, Wales and Georgia, while it seems unlikely there will be crowds at matches if the regulations are eased ahead of the Autumn Nations Cup final on December 5.
The IRFU hoped to convince officials that they could implement social distancing at the Aviva Stadium to allow 18,000 people attend matches and that would release €30m in committed revenue from 10-year ticket holders which would ease the burden, but there are growing fears the normally lucrative fixtures against England and France next spring could also happen in an empty stadium.