Owen Doyle: Opportunity knocks to make real change in IRFU governance

Browne’s tenure has been very successful but old committee system could be altered

There’s a match being played, and it’s not even available on pay-to-view.

Professionals versus Amateurs. It kicked off in 1995, unbeknownst to us all, and it’s now in the final quarter.

Philip Browne was in charge, but, nonetheless, the committee system held real sway back then. Decisions were debated and argued long into the night, as the amateur organisation faced into the very unexpected demands of the new professional era. The IRFU was unprepared for the outcome of the Paris summit, which voted in favour of pay-for-play. Ireland was opposed.

Galwayman Bobby Deacey, like all honorary treasurers, held the chequebook, and wouldn't have been alone in his reluctance to pay players. The Union was late in providing resources, and players left for foreign fields. A lot of midnight oil was burned and the final outcome of four professional teams, and of central contracts, was a good one.


It's strange to remember that HQ was staffed then by no more than a handful of employees; to the forefront was rugby administrator, former Ulster outhalf, George Spotswood, of inestimable value to the organisation.

Little by little, CEO Browne led the Union into, and through, very unfamiliar territory, it was truly the road less travelled. There is no doubt that, overall, his tenure has been very successful.

Very small group

His time in office has also seen a huge, inevitable, diminution in the influence of the committee system. The general committee is really just there now to hear what’s happening, and what’s happening is dictated by the amount of money available. The pro-game (about 300 players) creates the wealth to run all of the game, and it also hoovers most of it up. The amateurs (over 100,000 players) get some of what’s left.

Rogue traders have populated not only stockbrokers and banks but also many major sporting organisations which didn't give a tuppence for governance or accountability

The power nowadays rests with a very small group, mostly professional staff, including the CEO, the performance director, and also the treasurer.

The Union has been pondering where it needs to go next, and what structure will ensure long-term good governance of the organisation – change, one would think, is in the air.

But, after a four year review, the IRFU has produced a model which is pretty much the same old committee system. While there are a few tweaks there is nothing to suggest that anything important will change. The general committee, again with a large, unwieldy, number of 23 or 25, will merely rubber-stamp recommendations which come before it.

Governance and accountability, these are important words; and it would be crass of me to suggest, in any way, that I think the IRFU is in any danger of what we have seen elsewhere, I do not.

But rogue traders have populated not only stockbrokers and banks but also many major sporting organisations which didn’t give a tuppence for governance or accountability.

'Champagne Football,' a thriller by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, is a hair-raising tale of how John Delaney completely hoodwinked the FAI, while using its financial resources to mightily enhance his personal lifestyle.

Slightly further afield, football chiefs Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini appear to have helped themselves to the various available coffers. Blatter has just been banned again for a further six years with the small question of €18 million benefits seemingly unanswered.

As part of its review, the IRFU Governance Working Party looked at about half a dozen different models, including the separation of the amateur and professional games, which has been rejected; for reasons which do not seem too tricky to address, so let’s continue.

While the pandemic has had a terrible effect on income streams, rugby was already altering course so rapidly that there are compelling reasons why the IRFU should reconsider its preferred pathway. The challenges are growing, both financially and also in dealings with World Rugby and other Unions which will become acutely more difficult. More private investment is on the cards, including WR considering parting with a slice of the World Cup commercial rights. All of this is only starting.

It’s not hard to argue that appropriate, astute professional policies, direction and outcomes would surely be much better served by a properly constituted board of directors, made up of suitably-qualified IRFU provincial delegates and also inclusive of highly qualified expertise from independent members.

There are many wise and qualified business brains among rugby supporters, including retired players and referees, who have the necessary independent expertise

All the relevant executive staff must be fully accountable to the board and for ensuring a culture of corporate correctness - which is the way of the real world. It’s very hard to see that what’s being suggested now will be fit for long-term purpose. The next 25 years? Think about it.

The CEO, and the performance director, whoever they may be in the future, will understand that full accountability is normal, which it is. It’s big business now and should be run like one. Key skills at the very top will, inevitably, need high level leadership experience, and an ability to recognise and work with this very different world; the new coin in the partnership, CVC investors, is but one example. Media savvy, to boot, would be an excellent extra.

Independent expertise

There are many wise and qualified business brains among rugby supporters, including retired players and referees, who have the necessary independent expertise and who would be interested in sitting at the table. Conversely, the majority of these would likely see the current system as utterly unappealing.

Where to, then, for the current committee structures; well, they should run the amateur game, but how?

Formalise the in-house separation of professionals and amateurs. Then fund the latter by an agreed percentage of all the income generated by the pro-game, and ringfence it, preventing the professional side of things dipping into that pot without permission. Perhaps put the chair of management on the pro-board, and there could be better days ahead for the amateur players and clubs.

Some may find reason to oppose such change, but don’t forget that the separation formula does ensure (majority) representation on the professional board of directors. Of equal importance, it actually restores the level of control to the amateur game necessary to empower it, once again, to make decisions for itself, which is simply what used to be.

It might well be a nettle to be grasped, it might also be an opportunity not to be missed. This non-televised fixture may well be heading into extra-time.