Power players : the most powerful people in Irish rugby

We look at the power brokers of Irish rugby and find out how they influence the game.

1 Tom Grace

In a governing body whose paid employees are answerable to so-called amateurs, Grace is the consummate and very professional Irish Rugby Football Union committee man. The former Ireland and British & Irish Lions wing brings the expertise of a career in management consultancy and insolvency as a Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers to his role of honorary treasurer at the IRFU and chairman of the all-powerful Finance Committee. It doesn’t stop there, Grace is a member of the Player Contract Review Group, which has the power of veto of the signing of provincial players and goes into bat for the IRFU at the negotiating table when central contracts are up for discussion. With a reputation for playing hardball, Johnny Sexton may have flown the coop but lessons were learned and the expected exodus of Irish talent in this year’s round of talks has not materialised.

2 Phillip Browne

As the IRFU’s first chief executive, former world championship rower Browne has steered Irish Rugby through some pretty momentous times since his appointment in 1998. On his watch, the four provinces have overtaken club rugby as the driving force in the Irish game and achieved staggering success in the Heineken Cup, leading to a competitive national team which landed three Triple Crowns and then the Grand Slam in 2009. Off the field, Lansdowne Road was redeveloped into a world-class stadium and Browne also managed to win over the GAA to lend them Croke Park during the building work. There may have been a blip when the IRFU got the ticket prices all wrong in the reopening season but Browne led the rethink and has guided the governing body safely through a turbulent economic climate.

3 Performance Director

One of the chief gripes about Browne and the IRFU has been a failure to appoint someone to a newly-created role that is pivotal to the future of Irish rugby. As the governing body states on its website having decided in its 2013 Plan Ireland to create the position of performance director, the appointment would be “responsible for the overall leadership and management of the Professional Game in Ireland within the strategic, policy and budgetary parameters laid down by the IRFU Committee”.

Reporting to the CEO and accountable through Browne to a new and still unformed National Professional Game Board (NPGB), the PD “will lead the management of the key coaching and technical support staff involved in the professional game including the national team coach, provincial head coaches, high performance manager, medical director and director of fitness”. Quite some influence and supposed to be in place before a replacement for Declan Kidney was appointed. We are still holding our breath.

4 Joe Schmidt

The new Ireland head coach appears to have invigorated the national team since replacing Kidney at the end of last season. And with Team Ireland providing 85% of the IRFU’s revenues, which in turn finances Irish rugby from the provinces and the all-important, participation-growing women’s game down to the grassroots, a winning head coach is central to the governing body’s business model. As Leinster head coach, the Kiwi set the template for getting the best out of his players and threw down the gauntlet for other teams to follow their exciting and winning style of play. Now he’s beginning to work his magic at Test level, running the All Blacks close and then beating Scotland and Wales in successive games.

5 Finbarr Crowley

Chairman of the management committee and as influential as his position suggests. A solicitor by profession, Clontarf clubman Crowley is a founding partner at Crowley Millar and while his primary focus is in property he also advises on sports law, sporting governance and management/player contracts. That ticks more than a few boxes where the IRFU is concerned.

6 Martin O’Sullivan

An IRFU vice president this year and a perennially influential figure within the governing body. The UL Bohs man is former chairman of the Munster Professional Games’ Board and current chair of the powerful Player Contract Review Group. O’Sullivan was also on the four-man interview panel with Browne, Keith Wood and a rep from the CSM sports marketing agency to find Declan Kidney’s successor and which recommended Schmidt for IRFU approval.

7 John Feehan

As chief executive of the Six Nations, the British & Irish Lions and Celtic Rugby, the Dubliner may be outside of the IRFU umbrella but he has an influence overall that is dear to the Irish governing body. And with ERC’s grip on the European Cup competition loosening, Feehan’s Six Nations committee is currently brokering a new dawn for the Irish provinces’ competitive future.

8 Pádraig Power

IRFU commercial and marketing director Power is the man responsible for maximising revenues at Lansdowne Road and, in his 13 years with the union, has been instrumental in bringing Aviva to the table in a €44m, 10-year stadium naming rights deal, O2 as shirt sponsors until 2016 and many other sponsorship deals with household name brands. Power’s latest coup was to secure a reported €11.5m exit payment from kit manufacturers Puma and then sign Canterbury as their successors in a six-year deal worth more than €20m.

9 Maurice Dowling

Tom Grace does not go into player contract talks alone. As director of human resources at the IRFU, Dowling is the other half of the team. Their hard-ball double act last season backfired when Johnny Sexton quit Leinster for Racing Metro but the pair have upped their game since and have secured a raft of centrally contracted players to new deals in the face lucrative offers from French Top 14 deals.

10 Fintan Drury

The boss at Platinum One is the man who makes the IRFU wriggle uncomfortably in their seats as he negotiates new contracts for his clients, stoking the fires with well-placed titbits in the media. And when one of those clients, Sexton, decided to walk away from a central contract and move to France, it shook the IRFU into action, paving the way for other players, Sean O’Brien amongst them, to get a deal worth turning down the Top 14 moneybags for. Drury enters the list as a representative of influential agents who also number John Baker, Ryan Constable’s Corner Flag company and Jamie Heaslip’s management company Ikon Talent.

11 Brian O’Driscoll

He may not have long left on the field before retirement at the end of the season but Ireland’s greatest player will remain the public face of Irish rugby for quite a long time yet. Evidence that his profile transcends his sport was never more compelling than last summer when his omission from the Lions’ final Test provoked national hysteria. Such star power could well be embraced by the country’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, with O’Driscoll as one of its ’ambassadors’.

12 Pat Whelan

One of the IRFU bigwigs instrumental in Irish rugby’s transition from the amateur game to professionalism, Whelan has served the game as a Test hooker, national selector and team manager before moving further along the corridors of power. Currently midway through a three-year term as vice-chairman of the Six Nations Council, Whelan also serves on the International Rugby Board and is a member of the IRFU’s five-man Player Contract Review Group.

13 Peter Boyle

Like Whelan, former Leinster Branch and IRFU president Boyle serves as representative for the governing body on the International Rugby Board and the Six Nations Committee, while the Dublin solicitor, principal of his family’s law firm, also serves on the board of European Rugby Cup. Not afraid to punch his weight at rugby’s top table, Boyle resigned in 2012 from an IRB interview panel to appoint a new chief exec, claiming the process was not transparent.

14 Paul O’Connell

Ireland’s captain carries respect throughout the rugby world on his broad shoulders after a distinguished career that has seen him tour with the British & Irish Lions three times and captain them in 2009. His decision to sign a new IRFU contract which will keep him at Munster until 2016 rather than move overseas will have resonated with fellow players who may have been wavering, and the veteran lock will lead his country into the 2015 World Cup.

15 Eddie Wigglesworth

The eventual appointment of a performance director may render the director of rugby position obsolete but though his star may be waning, Wigglesworth still holds some sway at Lansdowne Road as a long-serving employee and member of the powerful Player Contract Review Group as well as the Management, Representative Game and Performance committees.

16 Pat Fitzgerald

The IRFU’s current president but more than just a figurehead of the organisation. A former chairman of the Commercial and Marketing Committee, Longford businessman Fitzgerald remains a key player in terms of sponsor relations, helping to get deals across the line and then keeping those relationships going.

17 Mick Dawson

The former Lansdowne hooker was appointed chief executive at Leinster Rugby in 2001 and has overseen the province’s transformation from poorly-supported underachievers lagging behind Munster and Ulster to money-spinning top dogs, champions of Europe three times, operating out of a state-of-the-art training facility and capable of selling 40,000-plus tickets at the Aviva Stadium for Heineken Cup pool games.

18 Garrett Fitzgerald

Munster’s long-serving chief executive has steered his province through difficult times after the glorious highs of Heineken Cup glory in 2006 and ’08, and are coming out the other side thanks to prudent management, the development of a strong academy and the emergence of exciting young players who will form the backbone of the team in red for seasons to come. Fitzgerald has also cut through a political minefield to finally establish a single training base at the University of Limerick, due to open in 2015.

19 Shane Logan and David Humphreys

Ulster’s chief executive and director of rugby are the formidable double act behind the resurgence of the province. When Johann Muller leads a team assembled by Humphreys out for the Heineken Cup quarter-final in April it should be at a redeveloped Ravenhill stadium, Logan having secured UK government money to part-fund the project.

20 Scott Walker The IRFU director of rugby development and the club game is responsible for the development of the women’s game, which can transform rugby in this country if the Ireland women’s sevens team qualifies for the sport’s reintroduction to the Olympics at the 2016 Games in Rio. With participation in sport key to funding, Walker’s role carries extra responsibility for transforming the women’s game into the IRFU’s prime participation vehicle if the sevens can build on the success of the historic 2013 Six Nations Grand Slam.


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