Omar Hassanein: ‘You’ve got to build a rapport and get players’ respect.’

I think a relationship between the player and employer of mutual respect will not only benefit our players but benefit the game. The proof is in the pudding.

As a former Australian flanker, Omar Hassanein could always handle himself, but when he arrived in 2011 he discovered that getting to grips with natives in junior rugby would arm him for boardroom battles that lay ahead.

But heading up the Irish Rugby Union Players Association requires more than a diplomatic touch and the businessman in Hassanein blends well with the hardy ex-Waratah with a background in rugby league who also had stints in France and Italy with Tarbes and Padova.

The 38-year-old is of Randwick stock, the illustrious Australian club that produced former Munster chief Alan Gaffney and Leinster’s culture changing coach Michael Cheika.

It’s probably why he felt right at home playing for Monkstown in the Leinster League after he settled in.

“It was a fantastic thing on a personal note, it really brought me in touch with Irish culture,” explains Hassanein ahead of tonight’s 13th annual IRUPA Awards.

“It also helped me understand how the amateur game in Ireland is run and in a funny way it complemented what I do here (with IRUPA) because it just gave me an understanding of how it all works.”

At 6ft 5in, and still close to his old playing weight of 118kg, Hassanein shakes hands with his bear paw, but he disarms you with that natural Aussie charisma and warmth.

However, it is two-year-old Oscar who finally felled the big man and brought his playing days to a close. The son of Hassanein and his wife Bree was born in April 2013 and those newfound responsibilities ensured that the rugby boots have gathered dust since.

Still, as chief executive of IRUPA, his competitive instincts haven’t been dulled although these days positions are becoming slightly less entrenched between the players and the IRFU.

Right now, Hassanein and IRUPA are trying to work out the parameters of a new IRFU contract that will benefit every player in the country.

Safe-guarding injury information and the push to include incentivisation within any player movement strategy are new additions to an agenda that has long been aimed at levelling the playing field.

Without the players there is no sport, and it’s taken a long time for those who structure the game to accept IRUPA as equal stakeholders when it comes to handing out the dividends and setting out the path for the future.

“There’s a real willingness to work for each other and that’s something we want to achieve and we’re making strides towards that. Sometimes we feel we take two steps forward and one back but we’re making progress,” says Hassanein as he reflects on his four years in charge.

“The biggest thing we’ve achieved is trying to go down the road of creating a cultural shift whereby players are considered more respected stakeholders.

"I think a relationship between the player and employer of mutual respect will not only benefit our players but benefit the game. The proof is in the pudding when you look at models like New Zealand rugby where there’s a high level of respect between the employer and employee.”

Respect is the most valuable currency in the sports business, and without it Hassanein can’t convince players like Paul O’Connell, Rob Kearney and Rory Best that he is the right man to lead their cause off the pitch.

“You’ve got to build a rapport with the players and get their respect. Otherwise, you’re in for a challenge,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a role (IRUPA chief executive) that anyone can just shift into from other areas in business or even from the world of sport. I think it is quite niche.”

From the point of view. Hassanein believes his successor may come from within given that he knows the time will soon come for him to move on.

“I think I’ve got another year or two left trying to finalise and box off a few things that we’ve set out to achieve. For my own career development and personal reasons for my wife and I and my little boy and for the organisation’s development, too, I think it will be a benefit.”

Current IRUPA operations manager and former Leinster player Simon Keogh could be the man to follow Hassanein and he will be aware that equal respect in Irish rugby’s employer-employee relationship is not so straightforward.

Omar Hassanein: ‘You’ve got to build a rapport and get players’ respect.’

The Johnny Sexton contract saga is one such instance where a different approach could have led to an outcome that suited player, union and province. Certainly, Leinster have missed Sexton’s services since he decamped to Paris while Ireland coach Joe Schmidt had no choice but to allow him play for Racing Metro on free weekends during the Six Nations.

Sexton will return next season on a long-term four-year deal with the IRFU, but Hassanein believes the whole situation should have been avoided.

“There’s lessons from every side of it. The IRFU recognise that perhaps they would have benefited from speaking to Johnny a little earlier on and having a bit more structure around that contracting process which is now coming to fruition with the new contract structure,” says Hassanein.

“At times, particularly, when your players are at such a level of high achievement you should actually slap them on the back and say ‘well done, here’s recognition of how much you mean to us’.”

The streamlining of the new contracting process and the building of bridges between the players and the union comes in the form of the new National Professional Game Board (NPGB) which Hassanein is a member.

It puts him at the heart of discussions around how the IRFU come up with a strategy and structure for the game.

“That’s the key to all of this, if any governing body wants to take their players seriously they’ve got to involve them in the proper decision making process, you can’t just consult with them on soft discussions and then conveniently exclude them on harder discussions which is a position we never want to be in.”

High performance director David Nucifora is a key part of the NPGB and as a compatriot Hassanein knows that he will have to tailor his methods to the Irish rugby landscape which differs so much from that of Australia or New Zealand.

“It took me a little while and I think David’s got to recognise that it will take him a little while too to understand a few things. One is, the way the cultural difference and the general approach to things — and I mean that in a good light — in the sense that it’s good and bad, the provincial tribalism is a good thing but perhaps it might restrict any player movement policy being as easy as some might think. That’s something that perhaps takes time to understand.”

Player movement is a big issue for Nuficora to tackle because it’s quite clear that Irish rugby would benefit if more of our best players were togging out every weekend rather than playing B&I Cup or lounging about in their tracksuits. Hassanein says that IRUPA believe players should be paid more to move to Connacht or to cross the tribal divide between Munster and Leinster, but it is hard to see the union being keen to spend extra money on an internal market. It will be a big challenge to convince the union otherwise, but Hassanein and IRUPA are more than capable of fronting up to it.


Lifestyle

Bryan Stevenson is the American civil rights lawyer who provided the inspiration for the newly-released film Just Mercy. Esther McCarthy spoke to him in IrelandReal-life lawyer Bryan Stevenson on inspiring Just Mercy

So I’ve booked my holidays. And before you ask, yes, I’m basing it around food and wine. I’ll report back in July, but I thought readers might be interested in my plan should you be thinking about a similar holiday.Wines to pick up on a trip to France

Esther N McCarthy is on a roll for the new year with sustainable solutions, cool citruses and vintage vibes.Wish List: Sustainable solutions, cool citruses and vintage vibes

They have absolutely nothing really to do with Jerusalem or indeed with any type of artichoke, so what exactly are these curious little tubers?Currabinny Cooks: Exploring the versatility of Jerusalem artichokes

More From The Irish Examiner