THE future of Connacht rugby will remain under the microscope until the findings of an independent review are made known in early autumn, the Irish Rugby Football Union AGM has revealed.
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne admitted last night that a significantly greater degree of commercialisation was needed to head off future problems. “At the end of the day we want to improve the situation there; the review lies with Connacht and the management committee at the moment,” he said.
Connacht players are currently on unusually short single-year contracts and Browne revealed that the traditional time for re-negotiations in the provinces was following the autumn internationals.
He said the issues would hopefully be clearer by then, to allow a full reassessment of what was required to bring the province forward.
“Whatever is to happen must work for Connacht but it must also work for the rest of Irish rugby. The status quo doesn’t fully work for anyone; from a financial and rugby point of view. We have spent a significant amount of money over the last 10 years on professional rugby in Connacht and it hasn’t actually moved things on, so we have had to look at that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the IRFU continue to carefully negotiate the difficult economic climate and yesterday announced a surplus for 2009 of €1.7 million, just slightly down on the previous season.
But IRFU treasurer Tom Grace reiterated the dangers facing the organisation should the Government force a free-to-air TV proposal for major rugby events.
Against the backdrop of the new Aviva Stadium at yesterday’s AGM, Grace said the proposal posed a huge threat to the future of rugby in Ireland and pointed out that TV revenue was imperative for the development of the game.
“Last year’s revenues improved by €2.1m and went up to €59.1m. This is largely due to the impact of the new Six Nations broadcasting contracts, underlining the vital importance of unfettered broadcasting partnerships to the well-being of the game at all levels,” said former international winger Grace.
He reported an increase in commercial income of €900,000, mainly due to new partnerships with Puma and other commercial revenues connected to the Grand Slam success the season before last.
Grace warned the surplus primarily reflected the performance of Irish teams, and pointed out there were numerous risks of a financial nature which were under constant review.
But there wasn’t a hint of threat to Ireland’s coaching team led by Declan Kidney, with delegates convinced a recent results slump – successive defeats to Scotland, the Barbarians, New Zealand, the New Zealand Maori and Australia – was temporary.
“I still believe there is more to come from this squad,” Grace said.
The management and coaching team of Paul McNaughton, Kidney, Gert Smal, Les Kiss, Alan Gaffney and Mark Tainton are all contracted to Ireland at least up to the conclusion of the World Cup.
Chief executive Philip Browne also headed off any would-be critics when he noted: “Irish rugby has had its share of good news stories over the past few years, largely through the exploits of our various teams. It says something people were disappointed that the team could only come second in the Six Nations this season.
“Added to that, Leinster and Munster both reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and the Magners League in its new format. Connacht had an unbeaten run to reach the semi-final of the Amlin Challenge Cup in a more competitive and rejuvenated format and that was another huge boost for the game in this country.”
An even bigger boost for the organisation will be a return to their spiritual home on Lansdowne Road. Even though attendances will fall from a maximum 82,000 at Croke Park to 50,000 at the Aviva, the IRFU is confident of a bright future.
Treasurer Grace pointed out that the IRFU would be spared a significant rental fee associated with Croke Park and would be selling tickets at the higher level because, unlike GAA headquarters, it will be an all-seater stadium.
Browne, meanwhile, described the completion of the Aviva Stadium as one of the most exciting developments in Irish rugby. “The completion marked the end of a remarkable project between ourselves, the FAI and the Government; it was delivered on schedule and on budget,” he said.
The IRFU has readjusted its plans for the opening game in the new stadium with composite under-20 teams from Ulster/Leinster taking on Munster/Connacht on July 31.
Remarkably, for an underage fixture, over 25,000 tickets have already been sold.
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