Philip Browne: IRFU’s cash reserves likely to be exhausted within months

Chief executive outlines stark challenges facing Irish game if rugby fails to return this year

Such is the desperate need to restore Test rugby before the end of the year within Ireland and elsewhere that hosting the cancelled July tours in the northern hemisphere this autumn still remains a possibility. Failing that, a European international cup competition, or a home and away Six Nations or a more pan-European, one-off tournament are all under consideration.

Hosting a press briefing with the Irish media by video on Friday, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne confirmed: "There are options there to try and complete all the postponed international fixtures if we can and is that possible? Yes, it is. It's a challenge on a whole number of fronts. But if it isn't possible, then we have a Plan B and Plan C as well."

Indeed, in the likelihood of those games and the November Tests being ruled out due to intercontinental travel restrictions, those alternative plans would, said Browne, be determined by the amount of weekends available.

“Then there are many different formats of competitions you can put together, from cup competitions, to Six Nations home and away to goodness knows what. If there are other European teams or other teams that can travel there are other things we can do. The issue is trying to get to a point where we can make some decisions.”


Ireland are due to host the world champions South Africa, Australia and Japan in November and Browne maintained: "In terms of the autumn internationals, we have a bit of time, we don't have to make decisions quite yet."

Yet if cancelled they'll badly need replacing, for Browne said that not being able to successfully reschedule Ireland's postponed 2020 Six Nations games against Italy and France, and complete the November Tests, would set the Union back a further €15 to €20 million.

Even playing those games behind closed doors “will cost us €10 to €15 million. So it doesn’t resolve the financial difficulty that we’re going to be facing into.”

Looking further ahead, Browne revealed: “If we lose the Six Nations in 2021 you’re talking about a €30 million loss. If we have to play behind closed doors in the 2021 Six Nations we’d be losing in and around €16 million in terms of gross revenues.”

These grim forecasts were against the “positive news” of CVC completing its estimated €140 million purchase of a 28 per cent share in the Guinness Pro14, of which the IRFU will receive €33.56 million over three seasons – beginning with an immediate payment of €5.59million. But against that Browne said “the IRFU’s cash reserves are likely to be exhausted within a matter of months.”

The Union, he said, had “hit a revenue cliff” and the only salvation was “playing competitive revenue generating matches as soon as we possibly can.

“The levels of financial loss being encountered by all sporting organisations is catastrophic and rugby is no exception,” said Browne, noting that 70 clubs had applied for support.

“It is not sensationalist to suggest that without Government financial support sport will take a generation to get back on its feet, leaving an enormous void at the heart of communities throughout the land.”

While “frustrated” that rugby was placed after GAA on the Government’s roadmap, Browne could “understand” why this was so and believes dialogue will be improved by Sport Ireland setting up an expert group.

Rugby Players Ireland having already agreed to salary deferrals, Browne envisaged further effects globally on player salaries and further conversations with the players’ body.

“The reality is, if we don’t see some light at the end of the tunnel there will have to be some very radical actions taken if we want to come out the other end of this in one piece.”

Browne confirmed that the weekend of August 22nd-23rd has been earmarked for a return of competitive rugby in the shape of two weekends of interpro derbies at the Aviva Stadium. To that end he admitted that regular and widespread testing of the four squads will be expensive and challenging.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s eating the elephant, isn’t it? If you don’t start somewhere you’ll never eat the elephant. So what we’re doing is trying to chip away at it and find out and establish where the major challenges are and how can we address them and we have to do that if we’re going to progress.”

Although the Ulster squad are in furlough and are adhering to different governmental and health guidelines, with Stormont yet to apply any dates for the projected return of rugby, Browne said: "I'd be pretty confident that, if our protocols are accepted, that we can have alignment between the north and the south."

“I think it goes back to the point of a highly-controlled environment, medical expertise and technical expertise and resources that you can be differentiated from the general population,” added Browne, something which he believed may mean rugby players are treated differently from most people travelling between countries.

As to the question of players having to sign a waiver before a return to training and playing, Browne admitted that this was something which the Union had to consider.

“To some extent it’s covered already in their contracts but it’s something that we’ll have to look at.’

Provisional fixture list

Aug 21-23 – Pro 14: Leinster v Munster, Aviva stadium; Ulster v Connacht, Aviva stadium

August 28-30 – Pro 14: Leinster v Ulster, Aviva stadium; Munster v Connacht, Aviva Stadium

Sep 5: Pro 14 semi-final

Sep 12: Champions Cup quarter-finals: Leinster v Saracens, Aviva Stadium; Toulouse v Ulster (tbc)

Sep 17: Pro 14 final

Sep 26: Champions Cup semi-final

Oct 3: Ireland v Italy + Pro 14 round 1

Oct 10: France v Ireland (tbc) + Pro 14 round 2

Oct 17: Champions Cup Final, Marseille

Oct 31: Pro 14 round 3

October 23 -November/December: Autumn Six Nations

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times