Schmidt effect vital in uncertain times

Joe Schmidt: New head coach brings a feelgood factor with him.

The financial success of this Autumn Series is crucial to the IRFU

There has been much talk of a new era beginning for Irish rugby this month at the Aviva Stadium and it is, admittedly, difficult not to get caught up in the buzz of optimism.

That feeling is based around the feelgood factor of the appointment of Joe Schmidt, an intelligent, detailed and accurate head coach who should bring about improvements on the pitch. Off it, this autumn series is of equal, if not more, importance.

The two elements are intrinsically tied up. Strong performances and exciting rugby on the pitch will lead to healthier IRFU finances off it. July’s revelation that Irish rugby’s governing body will need to borrow €26 million over the next six seasons to keep their provincial and national teams competitive was a wake-up call. All is far from rosy in the coffers of the IRFU.

A failure to sell five and 10-year tickets for the Aviva Stadium was cited as the main reason for the huge shortfall in projected earnings, so at the very base of this issue is the need to get more people visiting the Aviva Stadium on international match days. The 2,000 seats that were not bought as part of those long-term package deals will now be sold on an individual match-by-match basis.

This month has seen the IRFU off to a flying start, with both the Australia and All Blacks games selling out and a crowd of more than 40,000 expected for the Samoa clash.

A recognition that rugby has been feeling “the impact of the straitened financial times” has seen the IRFU lower tickets prices and as a result, they are facing into the most successful autumn series ever held at the Aviva Stadium.

Stephen McNamara, Director of Communications for the IRFU, agrees that the Schmidt effect has played an important role.

“Without a shadow of a doubt. There’s an expectation building and you get big events when something new comes along. That’s absolutely what’s happening.

“Within the clubs this year the take-up of the tickets has been really strong and the clubs themselves understand that by visiting matches at the Aviva, the club structure is kept in place and the provincial structure is kept in place too.”

Filling out the national stadium on every available occasion is the target and that’s what makes the November Tests so crucial to rugby’s existence here. Attracting high-profile sides in the Wallabies and All Blacks is a godsend, while Samoa’s improvement in international standing over the last two years has also been welcome.

The IRFU should earn more than €5 million this month, a genuine life source for the game, as McNamara explains.

“The six or seven games in the Aviva every year pay for so much in rugby that without it, there would certainly be financial issues for all the clubs, all the provinces and the IRFU itself. I think everybody’s just got behind it this year.”

Continuing unease over the future of European club rugby only increases the crucial nature of income from this November series for the IRFU.

Last season saw Irish rugby received €6.8m from the ERC for their participation in the competition, making it obvious how crushing a blow the potential lack of European competition is next season.

Still, McNamara points out that the IRFU’s focus is on the upcoming Test matches and ensuring that they are as successful as possible.

“Everybody’s focusing on the international matches at the moment. We all know that behind the scenes, there’s a lot going on in relation to the continued involvement of the clubs in European competition next year.

“I think there’s a long way to go in that debate. The input of the mediator [Graeme Mew] a couple of weeks ago has quietened things down a little bit. I think people are behind the scenes just getting on with it.”

This series of games will have clear knock-on effects for the IRFU too, with performances on the pitch playing the major role. If Schmidt’s team can capture the imagination, then the current positivity will last into the 2014 Six Nations, and boost ticket sales for the games against Scotland, Wales and Italy.

The stark reality is that the IRFU faces a €26m debt by the year 2020, but McNamara is positive about the start they have made this autumn. “At the moment we’re okay but everything is long-term planning so absolutely, selling out the stadium for two games, then getting 40,000 plus for Samoa and having the best series ever is music to the financial guys ears.”


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