Rugby has rapidly followed in football’s footsteps and with money talking loudly, Ireland’s provinces will never see glory again, writes Ewan MacKenna
Ultimately, life comes down to just a few moments. So you look in the mirror, straighten your tie, and inhale. You remind yourself that this is one of those moments and head for the meeting room assuring yourself that you’ll own it. But then it all unravels, strand by strand. Lost. Never to return.
The date was 17 March, 2014, a Monday in Paris and an IRFU delegation sat down with Top 14 and Premiership representatives to discuss the future of the Heineken Cup. Just two days earlier in the northern suburb of St Denis, Brian O’Driscoll walked away with a Six Nations but if that set the mood, what happened next etched the future in stone. With a weak hand, concessions were made and the IRFU left with resilient words unmasked by telltale faces. Sure enough there were safeguards to ensure Pro 12 teams didn’t suffer a drop in income but the big players struck it rich. The IRFU knew well that one of those few moments in their rugby lives had been lost. Never to return.
Since the early days of professional rugby, there’s been a wish and a will to try and follow in the footsteps of the Champions League. After all, the second it left the amateur world, it entered the business world and there the most financially beneficial course for the most powerful will always be implemented. The above was a seminal juncture for it pushed rugby down the same road to the same inevitable destination. It’s for that reason that it’s far from inconceivable that an Irish province will never be European champions again as, when the cut off point in a sport that’s professional is reached, the gap between the rich and poor grows wider and fast just as it did in soccer.
Back in 1987, with war on the terraces and turgid football on the pitch, Napoli were drawn to play Real Madrid in the first round of the old European Cup. Looking on, amongst other influential figures, was Silvio Berlusconi who wondered why the two best teams were meeting so early. It made no business sense to him, the sort of business sense that saw him sell television rights to make Milan rich again, and his model spread amongst Europe’s elite. The Bosman Ruling and petro-dollars of the few chosen leagues were the nails but he put the lid on the coffin and ended teams like PSV, Red Star and Steaua reaching the summit. Now it’s just a cabal of super clubs that can win a Champions League, indeed since 2004 no team outside the wealthiest 10 have done so. And it’s probable none will again.
That’s what rugby copied in that room in Paris. Traded heroes for ghosts. Hot ashes for trees. Granted, it was inevitable for these days with our major sports we take the falsity of a fun and fuzzy day out when the reality is as cold as a new razor blade. There’s no nobility in poverty anymore and there are certainly no underdogs. It took football 25 years to get to the total domination of the super club. But rugby is smaller, there’s less poverty to filter away into the drain, indeed it has leapt from Berlusconi to Bosman in just a couple of seasons.
Every trend starts with a point and last season’s competition was it. Leinster taking Toulon to extra-time was like the deathly dark night club you chose so you could chat up a girl. But the fact that for the first time since 1998 only one team from a Pro 12 nation made the quarter-finals was the brutally bright lunch you talked her into. There was no hiding there. This year, we’re not in December and of the Irish only Munster aren’t effectively out. All in all, the likelihood is the last eight will be French and English and you’d better get used to that. Chuck in new managers, bad form, World Cup players returning and whatever other asterisk you care for, but ultimately we’re already in the future that was signed up for.
Of course before the new competition began, we weren’t playing fair either. With money split between six unions rather than three leagues the Pro 12 was taking in about 50 per cent of the pot but creating a fraction of that. And with no real qualification, players were rested for Heineken Cup games. But while that benefited Irish teams in particular, it devalued the Pro 12 to little more than a joke and there was an acceptance of such mediocrity.
Last season’s average attendance may have been deemed okay at 8,586 per game compared to 13,207 and 13,352 in the Top 14 and Pro 12. But tickets don’t build sports empires anymore, television deals do. The strength of their competitions, the quality of their imports, the size of their markets and their place in their national psyche means the French could sign a five-season deal worth €74m a year while the English signed a four-season contract worth €53m per annum. As for the value of the Pro 12, with money coming from four countries it’s thought to be just €14m with a pitiful €1.2 coming from Ireland, a more realistic evaluation of the size of our rugby and how we’ve punched above our weight .
That all translates into a salary cap in England of €7.8m excluding two big-money marquee players and one which will grow hugely in coming seasons, France is at around €10m excluding those on less than €60,000 a year, while these clubs are funded by private owners too. As for us, our provinces are IRFU funded, thus unable to compete in the Champions Cup and as the Pro12 never pushed to capture the imagination, they’ll be little more than an academy for the national team before long.
Remember the successes from 2006 to 2012 as Munster finally ground over the line and Leinster sprinted away from the chocking tags? Well hold those thoughts, because they’ll never happen again.
Sunday Business Post
29 November, 2015