Leinster face chill financial winds if denied riches from Europe

More than ever province needs to generate revenue itself and failure on pitch doesn’t help

The stakes are high for Leinster today. Following on from their alarmingly limp defeat at home to Wasps last Sunday, another loss today in Bath would leave them winless after two games and, more to the point, facing back-to-back meetings with three-in-a-row European champions in December.

Not since the 1990s have they backed themselves into a corner so early in their campaign.

For sure, Wasps bucked the trend when recovering from losing their opening two matches last season to qualify for the quarter-finals by finishing second in their group to Leinster. But that was in a group that contained Harlequins and Castres.

Six seasons ago Leinster recovered from an opening weekend defeat at the RDS to London Irish, but Brive and the Scarlets were their other opponents then. No, this is altogether different.


Of course, failure to qualify in a given season need not be a disaster. When Leinster last failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the European Cup, in 2012-13, not only were they only just edged out in a very tough pool by a Clermont side at their potent best, compensation came by way of a European Challenge Cup and league double. Coupled with Brian O'Driscoll's swansong, that season was generally deemed a success, albeit with regrets about the defence of their Heineken Cup.

On the previous occasion Leinster failed to progress beyond the pool stages, under Michael Cheika in 2007-08, they regrouped and recovered to win the Heineken Cup for the first time the following season. In that season’s campaign, they also won the Magners League for the first time since they won the inaugural Celtic League in 2002.

However, tellingly, that was still deemed to be a relative failure, and unlike 2012-13, there is no route into the Challenge Cup this time around. Put simply, after three European Cups in a four-year period from 2009 to 2012, Leinster’s season is defined by their results in Europe.

Leinster were also edged out in the pool stages in 2003-04, but that was after winning their opening game and ultimately going out thanks to defeat in their final pool game away to Biarritz after winning four from six group matches. Similarly, it was a defeat on the last weekend away to Biarritz in 2001 that ended their hopes of reaching the last eight that season.

Defeat today, and with it a virtual exit from the tournament in November, would offer a return to the days when they were winning two games out of six in 1998-99 and 1997-98, and would mark the first time they have lost their first two matches since 1996-97 when they went down 34-17 to the Scarlets and 27-10 to Leicester.


There is, admittedly, more to play for in the Pro12, given the tougher and more meritocratic qualification system for the European Cup, which requires a top six finish, not to mention qualifying for the play-offs via the top four, and earning a home semi-final via a place in the top two.

An early exit would be a damaging if certainly not fatal blow to Leo Cullen’s new regime. Yet the implications – both sporting and financial – from what would be to all intents and purposes Leinster’s earliest exit since the ’90s, could be significant.

Leinster have become increasingly self-sufficient, with an annual turnover of about €15 million, excluding monies from the IRFU towards the cost of provincially contracted players. The union pays €90,000 towards 17 of these contracts, and €50,000 toward the remainder.

In Leinster’s case, this amounts to 27 of their 34 fully contracted players, and the IRFU committee was informed that the €2.3 million the union contributes towards these contracts is about €300,000 down on the comparative figure in 2006-07.

Hence, the province’s need to generate their own monies has been accentuated. However, not alone would there be no financial spin-offs from appearing in the knockout stages, much less with a lucrative home quarter-final, the campaign to promote ticket sales for the marquee fixture against Toulon at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday December 19th upon the full-time whistle last Sunday in the RDS sounded like a particularly hard sell.

Ticket sales for that game are supposedly in excess of 35,000, but they will be a harder sell still if they lose today and to Toulon away six days before hosting them; all the more so with Paul O’Connell hors de combat. Viewed in that light, Leinster would assuredly struggle to match the 43,000 tickets sold for last season’s December fixture in the Aviva against Harlequins, and that was for an unsuitable 7.45pm kick-off. The Toulon game kicks off at a more spectator friendly 5.15pm.

The province’s marketing department would have an uphill task to emulate the 47,370 which attended the Northampton game at the Aviva in December 2013, or the near 49,000 tickets sold for the return meeting with Clermont in December 2012.

In the longer term, were there no Pro12 quarter-finals to look forward to when Leinster host Munster in April at the Aviva, that fixture would also lose some more of its lustre.

International contracts

Then there are the potential implications for the IRFU's negotiations with Seán O'Brien and Cian Healy, the two Leinster players whose international contracts expire at the end of the season.

All of this and more is being underlined to the IRFU at the moment. At the union's behest, the chief executives of Munster and Leinster, Garrett Fitzgerald and Mick Dawson, presented the full IRFU committee a breakdown of their current well-being and their prognosis for the future.

Ulster, Connacht and Munster have been bailed out with lump sums over the years, but all the provinces have seen their funding reduced. Munster appear financially the worst off, with an estimated debt to the union from the redeveloped Thomond Park of around €9 million.

With the region, and especially Limerick, hardest hit by the recession, and crowds dwindling, they are apparently making little or no imprint on that remaining debt. Moving between Limerick and Cork is another financial albatross around their necks.

Their under-age/academy structure is also contributing far less to the Irish under-20s than of yore, while emigration has contributed to a huge shift in the balance of power at club level from Cork and Limerick to Dublin.

Nor are Leinster and especially Munster supplementing their ranks with the same quantity or quality of overseas signings as when dominating European club rugby.

Where Leinster had six overseas players when winning their first Heineken Cup in 2009, they have four now. Munster have six, and Ulster five, but David Nucifora (who ratifies all signings) and the union are now far less inclined to approve foreign imports.

Leinster’s reduced funding from the IRFU toward their overseas’ players applies to the other provinces as well. The union now pays roughly €150,000 less to each of the provinces toward the salaries of their foreign imports compared to 2006-07. Compared to then, the provinces also play their foreign players’ PRSI, and bonuses over a certain mark.

Furthermore, where there used to be 30 central IRFU-contracted players in the high of 2006-07, this season there are 13 players on union-funded international contracts. All this comes at a time when the IRFU’s dividends from the Six Nations, the ETC/EPCR pot and the Pro12 have consistently been increased.

Leinster have been hardest hit by this reduced funding, in several ways. Although they supplied 17 of Ireland's original 31-man World Cup, which was further supplemented by late call-ups for Mick McCarthy and Isaac Boss (as well as losing Zane Kirchener to South Africa), Leinster only have seven players under IRFU international contracts – Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Seán O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Devin Toner.

For all the denials from the likes of Jordi Murphy and Kurt McQuilkin, the flatness of last Sunday's performance must have been partially due to a World Cup hangover, along with the disjointedness from having a revamped side and a host of injuries.


As happened in France, some of the English clubs have been financially empowered by benefactors with wallets to match their egos and a new television deal.

There’s little doubt within the corridors of the IRFU that five European Cup triumphs in a seven-year period from 2006 to 2012 by Munster and Leinster giving way to back-to-back Six Nations titles is a fair trade-off, even if the provinces’ golden era also embraced a Grand Slam in 2009.

Of course, it is a delicate balancing act, but the union would need to be careful where they tread here. The 2009 Grand Slam was backboned by a core of Munster players who had won the Heineken Cup in 2006 and '08, in teams featuring Trevor Halstead, Shaun Payne, Federico Pucciariello, Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Paul Warwick.

The back-to-back Six Nations titles of the last two years were backboned by a core of Leinster players who had won three Heineken Cups. This sequence began in 2008-00 when Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa and CJ van der Linde were bought to supplement Felipe Contepomi, Chris Whitaker and Stan Wright, not to mention the enormous contribution of Brad Thorn to the 2012 success.

Their impact on their indigenous team-mates was immeasurable. But that kind of foreign infusion is a far cry from nowadays. You reap what you sow.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times