Philip Browne warns of 'unpalatable' consequences for Irish rugby if fans don't return

The IRFU CEO added that “the very existence of professional rugby on the island would be under significant threat in 2021”
Philip Browne warns of 'unpalatable' consequences for Irish rugby if fans don't return

IRFU CEO Philip Browne says the union could be facing job losses and the scaling back of the professional game in Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Philip Browne has warned that the IRFU is facing job losses and the scaling back of the professional game in Ireland if they do not get the green light to accommodate spectators at stadiums under a one-metre social distancing rule.

The union CEO told the Oireachtas on Friday that they are "burning" through €5m a month at present and that there is no end point in sight given the Aviva Stadium and the four provincial grounds remains closed to spectators.

He stated back in May that September was the point in time where they needed clarity on the issue of fans at grounds and, while that has been pushed back, he has not diluted the apocalyptic message for the sport of rugby if things don't change soon.

“We put a stake in the sand in September, that we would put our head above the parapet then, but we've moved it out to December. We need to see some clear line of sight in September as to when are we going to get spectators back into our stadia at provincial level and at the Aviva Stadium in 2021 and if we don't have that then we have to take certain actions that are frankly unpalatable.

“In terms of what is break-even at the Aviva Stadium, we would be comfortable at one-metre social distancing. That generates an attendance of in and around 18,000 and, whilst that is not ideal, it is something that is manageable. What we need to do with our colleagues in the GAA and IRFU is try and come together in terms of pilots being put in place and how we can move to that sort of situation.

“You don't want to do it in a big bang, you want to do some pilots and ramp up to that sort of capacity. If you can get to 18,000 then that eases the situation for us and particularly to ease the situation for the provinces who are very reliant on gate income. Without it it is a huge problem which ultimately comes back to our desk re at the IRFU as we have to support them.”

Browne also pointed out that it costs money to house fans and that even a figure of 5,000 at the Aviva – as was rumoured last week but didn't happen – would be a further drain on their dwindling resources and not a boon.

Savings have already been made in salary cuts and deferrals but there is only so much pruning can be done before even more drastic cuts have to be taken and he laid out bare exactly what these might be.

"Unpalatable looks like something very different to what we're doing at the moment. If we cannot generate revenues to support our activities then we will have to scale them back. 

"That effectively means redundancies, layoffs, scaling back - and in terms of the professional game as well.

"That's why it's unpalatable, but we certainly have to live within our means."

The IRFU boss has never been one to mince his words. He spoke of “catastrophic” financial losses as a result of the pandemic, a “far worse” outlook for next year as things stand, and added that “the very existence of professional rugby on the island would be under significant threat in 2021”. 

“Until we can admit spectators in meaningful numbers into our stadia, and return to some level approaching self-sustainability, the whole rugby infrastructure built over the last 150 years is under threat.”

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