Nokia had an iPad before the word was invented by Apple. We know next to nothing about this because they stuck to what they were good at. Everyone was buying their ‘brick’ mobiles so they doubled down on that product.
Right now the IRFU is Nokia. The brick is the Leinster schools supply chain. Keep up the ultra conservative model that is currently in place, a model that has served them so well up to now, and their market share in an ever changing international rugby environment will disintegrate.
Or . . .
The IRFU could take on debt and spend their way past rival unions in a far deeper crisis.
Decisions in the coming days, weeks, months can send Irish rugby back to the top of the international game and keep us there for decades to come.
Or we can stand still; exist rather than live.
The Six Nations will happen in 2021. On the back of Saturday's national trial in Limerick – tough break for Ulster contenders for Ireland – we should, fingers crossed, get a much needed run of elite rugby matches in empty coliseums.
While the rest of us remain under lockdown the rugby lads will be providing some much needed entertainment. What concerns me is how they are being treated off the field.
Unfortunately, the Six Nations will happen with a heavy mental burden that David Nucifora had all but eradicated since being appointed to run the professional game. Half the players are out of contract this summer and still waiting for a new deal.
Signing up Paul O’Connell as Ireland forwards coach is great business. Same goes for Dan McFarland being nailed down for another two years in Ulster and it sounds like Andy Friend will be staying in Connacht.
But the rest are in limbo. This has the potential to block the tunnel vision needed to capture a Grand Slam. I can attest from personal experience.
What really concerns me is the bottom line players will be forced to either accept or reject. Some players will push the piece of paper back across the proverbial table – really, it will be their agent and Nucifora thrashing out the details on Zoom – with the simple response: 'I am going to seek my market value' in France, England, Japan or even South Africa.
If you have not heard of Marco Masotti, maybe you know Jay Z?
Masotti – with the help of the billionaire rapper’s Roc Nation – is fronting the consortium MVN Holdings that just bought into the Natal Sharks.
Rugby is about to go global with Masotti also eyeing up Saracens while Western Province and Stade Francais are discussing a formal arrangement.
The IRFU must be commended for not taking on any significant debt outside the Aviva stadium but to slice up the current pay structures will only serve to damage player psyches as they gather in their Carton House bubble. Long term, these players and their agents will not forget the bottom line on the 2021 contracts.
I am writing from experience. Put 27-year-old me into a contract negotiation where Nucifora offers a 10 per cent pay cut on top of last year’s 10 per cent pay cut and I am opening talks with Toulouse or the Panasonic Wild Knights or whoever needs a versatile centre.
We already know that the sharks are circling young Irish talent. Glasgow had to settle for a combination of Duncan Weir and Ian Keatley after Munster managed to keep hold of Ben Healy. We presume their CEO Ian Flanagan was forced to improve Jack Crowley's wage after Ronan O'Gara tried to lure the Ireland under-20 outhalf to La Rochelle with the promise of Top 14 minutes as opposed to the fumes he is getting down home.
Something has to give. Especially when Joey Carbery returns.
If the salaries cannot be maintained to a certain standard this dam will burst. I know, I know, we have been saying this for years and Nucifora has done an impressive job to only lose Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan in the last World Cup cycle.
But the players have to reassess just how important it is to play for Ireland while having your minutes kept under review, when they know full well that nobody’s body is being spared in this never ending season.
Professional rugby players must be selfish about the contract they get every two or three years.
Tadhg Furlong is inching back from a year-long injury but, I would venture, his value has increased exponentially. The 28-year-old Lions tighthead prop will have plenty of offers. The IRFU will be forced to pay Tadhg his worth. Same goes for CJ Stander due to his freakish durability. That means the squeeze will be put on Sexton, O’Mahony, Earls and all the other over 30s.
I remember the satisfaction of signing my third last professional contract. I turned down Toulouse because I felt valued. As satisfied and motivated as I was by that deal, I was not delighted by the drop in that number two years later. The offer seemed grossly unfair because it wasn’t based on my statistics or form, it was based on my age.
I was 30.
Signing that contract – they knew I was settled in Dublin – was the moment rugby became a job.
I was the undisputed starting Ireland 12. All these shots in the head coupled with a mangled shoulder and this is how they value me? There is a fine balance in retaining a player using form, positional depth, and yes, age, but when it becomes a spreadsheet exercise it becomes a lose-lose for everyone involved.
A large majority of Ireland’s frontline players are about to start working for a living. That will be their perspective. The primary motivation will no longer be wearing the jersey. It won’t feel like you are living out a boyhood dream. The aches and pains suddenly become magnified; the discretionary effort that was automatic becomes a choice.
Managing the person and their motivations is more important the ever.
A special culture appears to exist in the current provincial squads but these waters are muddied by all the uncertainty the IRFU has created by refusing to negotiate with half their players until Nucifora returned from Christmas holidays in Australia. Throw a killer virus on top of this financial uncertainty and you can be damn sure I would be prioritising my family’s future.
This all sounds incredibly grim but it should get us thinking about how we come out of these challenging days, weeks, months. If this pandemic has taught us anything of late, it is to think outside the box whenever possible. Otherwise, we are just limping along from day to day. For so many people that is all they can do – exist rather than live.
That appears to be the IRFU strategy on contracts. I say 'appears' because they have not provided any insight into their strategic plans. Philip Browne, the CEO, to his credit, has stepped up a few times since April to lay out the stark reality of a professional machine operating without its financial engine: crowds.
I go back to my original point: the IRFU have charted a course through professionalism without taking on massive debt. Just before the world collapsed in on itself they sold 92 acres of land at Newlands Cross for €27 million. They recently received an €18 million bailout from the government. CVC Capital Partners have already cut them a cheque for €5.5 million with more promised.
From my perspective, now is not the time to be slashing the salaries of our most valuable product. Reduce, but in a balanced and fair manner. Let’s not forget that players sell tickets, and success sells sponsorship. Remove this almost unbearable uncertainty in the short term and watch them reward you long term.
Stagnation is not living, it is existing.
No bank would have an issue loaning money to the IRFU.
Paying the players their true worth is not the only reason for taking on debt. A wide-ranging plan to secure the long-term future of the game via an improved line of succession for the retiring pro to become a grassroots coach is equally important.
The models are all around us. Take the current Dublin football manager Dessie Farrell. People know him as a brilliant forward and former CEO of the Gaelic Players’ Association but, all the while, Farrell was quietly developing the skills of Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny as their coach on the Dublin under-14s all the way up to under-21.
Another phenomenally success supply line is St Michael’s College. The Dublin school has been a shining light these past 10 years for, above all else, their ability to produce professionals in every single position.
That is what makes their improvement since the early 2000s so impressive. They are sending up scrumhalves, outhalves, opensides, locks, hookers – you name it, they have it, with Ryan Baird a new type of athlete capable of playing wherever he is needed.
Munster rugby surely see the threat of Limerick hurling by now, as much as Leinster see the rise of Cuala in rugby’s spiritual home (Dalkey), but the St Michael’s model or, even more realistic, the Newbridge College link with Naas RFC via Johne Murphy, should be spread to every corner of this island.
To Munster’s credit, they have tapped into a previously unknown west Cork reservoir.
Gavin Coombes need not become an outlier. If Skibbereen are offering a giant athlete at the altar of Thomond Park then plenty of other non-rugby ports can do the same.
The secret to long-term success will not be discovered in Irish rugby’s traditional strongholds. It will come from a vibrant, expertly coached underage club scene. That is what the IRFU strategic plan for the 2020s should look like: keep our elite players and invest in coaching to ensure the player base is expanded to such an extent that we have a realistic chance of winning the 2031 World Cup.
Existing is not living. Browne already said as much on the record: “Never waste a good crisis.”
Leinster versus Munster = Ireland final trial
This is an Ireland final trial in multiple positions. Dave Kilcoyne versus Cian Healy is a straight fight for loosehead. Tadhg Beirne must out-perform Ryan Baird to stay in the matchday squad.
The backrow warzone – actually, the backrow selections – should dictate what trio we see against Wales. Has Dan Leavy done enough to come into consideration or does Will Connors or Josh van der Flier get the seven jersey? Can Rhys Ruddock overpower CJ and Pete? Caelan Doris is bolted on to start so how does Gavin Coombes stack up against him? Is Jack O’Donoghue still a contender or does Jack Conan have too much power?
It is essential that Andy Farrell sees Ben Healy and Harry Byrne in this environment. Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw against Damien de Allende and Chris Farrell promises to be an unbelievably physical contest in midfield.
All we are missing is RG Snyman.