Answering Ireland’s call: Martin O'Sullivan Q&A

Martin O’Sullivan was born in Sligo but lived and played his teenage rugby in Limerick with St Munchin’s College and Bohemians. 

He then spent seven years playing and coaching at Dolphin, before finishing his career at Bohemians. After that, he spent countless hours promoting the game at every level until this week he was appointed President of the Irish Rugby Football Union. It’s the most prestigious and onerous position in the game in this country and it’s a role he is ardently looking forward to taking up.

CM:

Congratulations on your appointment Sully — although it will have to be Mr President for the next 12 months! I suppose it is fair to say that rugby football has been central to almost everything you have done since you first kicked an oval ball?

MOS:

My dad Tom loved the game. He was originally involved with Cobh Pirates and was involved in getting the Bulls Paddock which ended up being the Cobh home ground back in the 40s. He was with the ESB and moved to Sligo where I was born and he used to bring me by the hand to watch the matches. I came to Limerick at 11 and went to St Munchin’s across the road from home. I was a sub on the first team to win the Munster Schools Junior Cup in 1970. After school, I joined the Bank of Ireland and went on to play with Dolphin and Bohemians. I became coach of Dolphin before being appointed captain and later coached Clanwilliam and Bohs.

CM:

You were later heavily involved with Munster’s great Heineken Cup years.

MOS:

Yes, I was chairman of the management committee when we won the two Heinekens. In 2009, I was on the IRFU committee and became chairman of the PRCG (Professional Contracting Review Group). It became quite controversial and there was a lot of talk and stuff written about us “blazers” and being “amateurs” and so on. I suppose I drove the limits on non-eligible Irish players coming in. We had too many of them. When we looked at the national situation, we were very limited for choice. We wanted to be like New Zealand by having three or four players for each position, which we have effectively achieved. To do that, we had to reduce the number of foreign players clogging up positions. The guideline was one player in each position. We met some resistance there from the provinces because their main concern was their own success, whereas we had to be concerned with the bigger picture. I took a bit of stick at the time, which I felt for a volunteer was a bit ironic, when I was trying to do my best for Irish rugby.

I soldiered on in that position until this year when David Nucifora came in as Performance Director. I was also chairman of the national team review group, meaning I was responsible for the Irish team, with the coach reporting to me and Philip Browne. We won two Six Nations Championships in that time. As a volunteer, I could see all the challenges in managing professional rugby and that it couldn’t be done by a volunteer and we needed to professionalise it and appoint a performance director.

CM:

Obviously the union’s finances are in a very healthy condition, as revealed at last night’s meeting.

MOS:

It is currently a healthy situation. The national team is responsible for generating over 80% of the revenue. The more successful it is, as we saw this year, the more revenues we get in. That has allowed us to free up money back into the professional game in the knowledge that we have to assist the provinces in being competitive, with the big bucks outside the country and in France in particular.

What we have been hugely successful in doing is holding on to our own players without breaking the bank. We have had only two players who left in the last six years, Johnny Sexton and Tommy Bowe, and they have both come back.

I believe if we really got our game right here that we could end up fully financing our own four provincial teams from our own resources, with all of them competitive, with some marquee players coming in for marketing or other reasons. And after that if we had a surplus of quality players, then they could go abroad and we could end up having five teams, a team abroad if you like, along with the four provinces, and that would require us doing our business really well here. The money freed up by the success of the national team, a lot of that would go into the elite player pathway which is the development of younger players and turning them into elite players.

CM:

Is funding the game and paying for the modern stadia around the country about to become easier because of the improved financial situation?

MOS:

What people don’t realise is that there is an uncertainty out there in terms of the balance of power between the rugby nations. The free-to-air argument for instance. The reality is that in the Six Nations, all the television money from the six countries is pooled and we get an equal share out of that. And yet the amount of money that comes in from Irish terrestrial television is miniscule. We put in a small amount and take a big bit out. The big television companies in France and England put in all the money and we get the same out of it as those two countries. If that ever changes; if they say, you guys are bringing nothing to the party and are taking a whole load out ... you come up with a box of smarties and go home with three boxes of Milk Tray...

You would have to say that things look OK at the moment, with TV values going up. That’s where the bulk of the money comes from. Gate money and sponsorship are reasonably substantial but they are dwarfed by TV money.

What could happen is that when the next TV deal comes up - whether it be for Six Nations, the World Cup or other internationals — only one company bids for it and nobody takes them on... it’s the competition within the TV sector that drives the values up and it’s the same in soccer and golf.

CM:

How much can the IRFU expect to make from the World Cup?

MOS:

Ultimately, all the money from the World Cup goes back into World Rugby (formerly the IRB). We get a small payment for playing in the competition but there is no prize money, even if you win the title. All you’d get is bonuses from your sponsors. As for Ireland actually winning the World Cup; the last time, we lost our warm-up matches and won our pool. The big challenge is to reach the semi-finals which, barring Italy, all the other Six Nations teams have done and we have yet to do, so we must not get ahead of ourselves. The good news is that we have held Joe Schmidt, probably the best coach in the world, until 2017. He is doing a fantastic job for us on and off the field in terms of the PR stuff he does and the amount of time he gives to rugby in Ireland and people in Ireland. He’s a credit to himself and to the game. Joe’s priority, rightly so, is to his family and time will tell, but as things stand at present, we’d like to keep him forever.

CM:

Finally, being President of the IRFU is a great personal honour for you and a great year to look forward to.

MOS:

It’s not something that was ever on my radar. It’s a huge honour for me, my family, my relations, my friends, my club, my province. My attitude has been to do my best for rugby and hopefully I can add some more value to it this year and enjoy it as well. It’s important to do that because you only get one shot at it. The aspect I am most looking forward to is travelling all around the country and meeting rugby people and hearing their views on things.


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