Irish provinces spared English uncertainties

Irish rugby, to borrow a phrase made famous by Harold McMillan, has never had it so good, says Brendan O’Brien.

Irish provinces spared English uncertainties

Results on the field of play have dictated that mood of optimism, as well they should. Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and a Test series win in Australia for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team have been supplemented by league successes for Connacht and Leinster and the latter’s fourth European title. Munster have been agonisingly close on both fronts.

Less remarked upon are is the foundations it’s all built on.

The IRFU lucked out when professionalism emerged blinking into the light in the mid-90s thanks to the ready-made moulds that were the four provinces because they have saved the union untold headaches and allowed it to sidestep countless financial minefields.

The schedule facing Leinster, Munster and Ulster this weekend only highlights as much. All three face English opposition in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup and it is an Anglo-Irish dimension that brings together two rugby communities separated by much more than the breadth of the Irish Sea.

England’s contribution to the knockout stages of the Champions Cup last season began and ended with Saracens’ loss to Leinster in a quarter-final in Dublin but barely 24 hours had passed before news broke that structural changes being contemplated for the Premiership might have the knock-on effect of downsizing the European competition.

It was all too easy to roll the eyes and think, ‘here we go again’.

The reality in England is that clubs, for all their faults and meddling in the wider rugby picture, are having to jump through all sorts of hoops simply to stay afloat, never mind launch a flotilla that can lay claim to the continent. Not for them the cocooned mothering of their host union. That ship sailed when the RFU sat on their hands at the dawn of professionalism.

The Guardian conducted a superb and painfully in-depth examination of the Gallagher Premiership’s 12 sides prior to the start of the latest domestic season.

What they found was that only two of the clubs returned profits and that spiralling wages and a tendency to spend far more than was coming in, was a widespread concern.

Exeter Chiefs, hosts to Munster tomorrow at Sandy Park, were one of the two to end up in the black.

“I’ve always approached Exeter with a commercial view,” the club’s CEO, chairman and long-time investor Tony Rowe said a few years ago when explaining their approach. ”If we can’t make money, why are we doing it?” Indeed.

Exeter playing Leinster last seaon

Exeter playing Leinster last seaon

Exeter are unusual in that their ownership rests with 700 members whose shares are held in trust. Nine of their competitors in England’s top-flight are effectively owned by wealthy individuals. Among them are Bruce Craig who, on buying Bath in 2010, said: “I’m not in this for business reasons, I am in it for the rugby and the fun we can have as a club as we strive to reach the next level,” he said.

It’s hardly a shock to note that the prudence of the Exeter Chiefs has resulted in a rise from lower league nobodies at a ramshackle ground to Premiership champions in 2017 and European dark horses who play at a refurbished stadium. Bath? They’ve won diddly squat and are stuck in development hell in their attempts to do up The Rec.

In fairness to Craig, he’s not alone. Catching lightning in a bottle looks easier than making money out of a professional rugby club but the recent history in England suggests that, while the penny has finally dropped with plenty of people, there is no shortage of others willing to fork out the readies and have a go themselves.

Nine of the Premiership’s clubs have either changed hands completely or experienced significant changes in their ownership structures in the last seven years alone. The latest were Worcester Warriors, a club that recorded pre-tax losses of £8m at the last time of asking. They were taken over by a consortium at the start of this month.

Uncertainty amidst such flux is a given.

Gloucester owner Martin St Quinton assumed full ownership of the club in 2016 when the Walkinshaw family brought almost two decades of input to an end but the fear – common to supporters of teams across sports all over the world – is that the people holding the keys will one day tire of the effort and the losses and call time.

St Quinton had to reassure Gloucester fans that this wasn’t the case earlier this year when he was appointed as the new chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse. A racehorse owner who has had three winners at the famous festival, it was inevitable that some fans would put two and two together and wonder if his time at Kingsholm were numbered.

Wasps, who face Leinster tonight, had to move a hundred miles up the road to Coventry in order to survive. Saracens, who will fancy their chances of winning a third European title this season, held a debt of £50m a few years back and too many clubs have had to rely on multi-million pound investments by their owners to keep the dream alive and the nightmare scenario at bay.

Rather them than us.

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