Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oh No, Minister! Free to Air Rugby and the IRFU

What an extraordinary spat it is that has broken out between the IRFU and the Minister for Communications, Eamon Ryan, over what rugby games should be free to air live on terrestrial, rather than satellite or cable, television.

There is a list extant of games that are of such cultural impact that they must always be free to air for the good of the people. The Minister wants to add the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup to the list, and the IRFU have gone ballistic over it.

Philip Browne, CEO of the IRFU, wondered at the press conference yesterday if the Minister could bear to having the dread title of the Man Who Killed Irish Rugby on his conscience. One wonders if Mr Browne knows Mr Jack O’Connor, the trade unionist with a similar line in doomsday polemic.

The IRFU’s argument is that the deal with Sky to broadcast the Heineken Cup floods Irish rugby with money, money without which the game would wither away and die. The Minister, and this is the crucial part, says that the majority of money funding Irish rugby comes from TV rights to the national team, and the Heineken Cup money is buttons, relative to this.

How interesting. Both of them can’t be right. I wonder which of them is at variance with the facts?

Listening to the Minister talking to Darragh Maloney on Sport at 7 on Radio One yesterday evening, it was hard not to feel for the man. Ryan was talking about things like culture and national moments, stuff you seldom hear from national politicians. Eamon Ryan believes that the great rugby moments of the current, greatest ever era in Irish rugby belong to the nation and not just to those who can afford Sky Sports or are happy to spend their afternoons scooping on the high stool and keeping an eye on events at Vicarage Road.

The IRFU, by contrast, seem focussed solely on the money.

The history of rugby in Ireland is an odd one. Rugby is a minority sport as regards participation, but the national team is watched and loved, and has been for generations. There is a clear disconnect between the rugby culture in Ireland, which is small, and the huge population whose backs straighten and shoulders go back when they see the Irish team in Twickers or Murrayfield or Cardiff or, God help us, Paris.

A good part of the nation grew up listening to Fred Cogley calling the plays on that great Irish team of the late seventies and early ‘eighties, men with fifty caps each, give or take, by the time they finally won that Triple Crown in 1982. The nation looked at Willie Duggan and Moss Keane and we saw ourselves as we would like to be. That meant a lot. And it still does.

But the IRFU don’t look at it that way. They have a different way of looking at it. They’re very happy that people are watching now but they are aware that the participation has always been small. And that doesn’t bother them. It’s been fine so far; why change now? They’re not really that bothered about Eamon Ryan’s rhetoric about “national events.” That’s not how they look at it.

Someone was getting booed taking a kick at goal in some game on Setanta a few weeks go, which is not the done thing at rugby. One of the Setanta analysts, commenting on the booing in studio afterwards, remarked that while Croke Park was all very well and good, there were a lot of people going to rugby games now, people who would normally go to Hill 16, who don’t really understand the rugby ethos. And, by implication, never will. He did not expound, but he didn’t have to. We got him loud and clear.

Any other sport would be in tears are seeing its gate for marquee events reduced from 80,000 to 50,000. The IRFU, by contrast, are whistling a happy tune as they return south of the river. I think An Spailpín will be backing Minister Ryan on this one.

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