As if the stakes for Munster were not high enough ahead of Friday’s Guinness Pro12 showdown with Edinburgh, chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald has warned that defeat in the last two games of the season could cost the province €500,000.
With Munster currently seventh in the table with home games to come against sixth-placed Edinburgh and fifth-placed Scarlets, the chief executive believes failure to secure the top-six finish necessary to make the Champions Cup pool draw for next season could cost “in excess of €500,000” at the turnstiles.
“You have to be looking at that, and that’s just being practical and just taking it from experience. But you could be lucky, if you didn’t make the Champions Cup, with the draw as well,” Fitzgerald said after the appointment of Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus as Munster’s first director of rugby for next season on a three-year deal.
He may have just presided over the most significant signing of Munster’s post-Heineken Cup glory days but that has not taken the province’s chief executive out of the firing line.
If anything, the unveiling of the eminently qualified Erasmus and with it the downgrading of head coach Anthony Foley’s responsibilities and the exit of much of his coaching staff, has merely re-focused disgruntled supporters’ attentions on the man at the top of the organisation, if the online reaction is any barometer.
The arrival this July of Erasmus from his role as South African Rugby’s High Performance General Manager, the Springboks’ equivalent of IRFU performance director David Nucifora, represents a major coup for Munster as they seek to reverse what their painful slide from the peak of the European club rugby pyramid.
Wherever the fault lies, and the problems are well documented, myriad and clearly not all his doing, Foley’s two years at the helm have only accentuated the decline, his squad having failed to progress beyond the Champions Cup pool stages in successive seasons. With two games of the Pro12 league campaign remaining, Munster are in danger of missing qualification for Europe’s premier competition next season altogether.
Which means for the first time since he became chief executive in 1999, Fitzgerald may well be in charge of a Challenge Cup outfit and all that entails from a financial perspective on a province which last June announced a deficit of €400,000 for the financial year ending last June 30.
Aside from half a million euro riding on the next 160 minutes of rugby, so too, then could Fitzgerald’s future as chief executive, if his IRFU paymasters take a dim view of the goings on down south with Munster following the game-wide trend of falling attendances even with Champions Cup rugby this current season.
“When you have your end of season or half-season review done you have certain KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), six or eight KPIs for the year. Certainly our financial targets will be down this year, on gate income,” Fitzgerald said. “Some of our areas like sponsorship is up. Many of the areas we’re doing around our commercial work is up. A lot of the stuff we’re doing around the numbers of games played at underage levels, they’re all up. But I’m sure when we come to the actual bottom line, financially, from the gate income that came in from our own pool games, that will be down.”
That could bode ill for the man at the top, who this week implied he too, like Foley, would be ceding some responsibilities to director of rugby Erasmus next season.
“Ultimately, I am responsible for everything, that’s where the buck stops,” Fitzgerald said. “Going forward we are going to have to look at the whole area of contracting and everything else where I have taken responsibility for the actual documentation and negotiation of it. I would imagine if a Director of Rugby comes in that will fall under his remit in time, once he gets used to the system.”
Will he be in charge at Munster next season, Fitzgerald was asked. “Hopefully, unless you have some other idea about it,” was the chief executive’s reply, but not qualifiying for the Champions Cup will do him no favours in that regard, and will clearly impact on whatever Erasmus’s plans for player and coach recruitment might be.
“I’m sure people will have different opinions on it,” Fitzgerald said of non-qualification and his prospects. “They haven’t been afraid to express their opinions previously,” he said wryly. “I see it as a challenge. I’ve been here since 1999 and I think it would be the first year in how many years (21) that we didn’t qualify (since its inception in 1995). I would see it as our immediate aim to get back up there the following year. And I think we would be capable of doing that.”
As always, though, it may not be Fitzgerald’s decision to make, as he is only too aware when asked about where the IRFU’s sympathies lie as regards Munster’s current plight.
“What I can honestly say is the IRFU have been very helpful and understanding of the situation we’ve been in but at the same time we’re running a business. You’ve got to get the balance between who you bring in and meeting your budgets and targets right. The IRFU have been really helpful but at the same time they demand results as well.”
Meanwhile Munster assistant coach Ian Costello has been named boss of Championship side Nottingham on a two-year deal. He takes over as head coach following Martin Haag’s appointment as England Under-20 boss.
“I’ve enjoyed a good time at Munster and felt it was time to get experience outside of Ireland,” Costello said.
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