Elaine Byrne: How the dramatic transformation of Irish rugby’s fortunes was no accident

The IRFU has hit on a winning formula – the more money it makes, the more it invests in the game, the more professionalised it becomes and the better it becomes at winning

Ireland line out against Tonga at the Rugby World Cup in Nantes last week. Picture: Dan Sheridan

When Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle side suffered a devastating defeat in the French Top 14 last October to rivals Pau, the former Irish fly-half was typically brutal in his honesty.

"The solution is quite easy to find: look in the mirror and understand the word humility,” he said, publicly chastising his own players. La Rochelle obviously found their integrity that season as they went on to win the European Rugby Champions Cup by a solitary point against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.

O’Gara’s long experience as a provincial player and Ireland cap had taught him about the fundamentals of being grounded. It is a virtuous pursuit to know where you came from in order to get to where you want.

O’Gara’s gracious rugby outlook comes to mind this weekend as Ireland and South Africa met in the Rugby World Cup. There is plenty to be humble about in Irish rugby which by tradition seems intent on delivering up hard-luck stories and putting its supporters through the emotional wrangler.

If you want to know how far Irish rugby has come in a relatively short period of time, then look back to 2010. The reigning World Cup champions South Africa came to Dublin to play Ireland in the first test at the new home of Irish rugby in the redeveloped Aviva Stadium. The Springboks were facing Ireland’s golden generation of rugby professionals who had won the Grand Slam the year before, incredibly our first in 61 long years since the famous Jack Kyle team of 1948.

Symbolic importance

This was a game of symbolic importance. A nation on its knees as the recession dug its teeth in, where victories in the international arena became landmark national events which filled us with aspirations and ambitions. Ireland lost narrowly with an agonising miskick from O’Gara – our sixth straight loss that year. What many most remember from that game were the 16,000 seats lying embarrassingly empty seats at the Aviva.

Despite the promise the year before, 2010 was a difficult year for Irish rugby. The IRFU were carrying a net debt of €11.5million. The Irish rugby team had dropped to fifth in the IRB World Rankings. The 68-page IRFU annual report for 2010/2011 contained one small photograph of women’s rugby.

The fortunes of the IRFU have swung dramatically since 2010. Ireland has reached the summit of the IRB rankings, just above South Africa. International games are automatic sell-outs. The 2021/2022 IRFU annual report contains an equal number of photographs of men’s and women’s rugby.

Despite combined losses of almost €47 million in the preceding two years because of the pandemic, the IRFU returned to a sooner-than-expected positive financial outcome with an operating surplus of €5.9 million in 2022.

The sport’s economic transformation has gone hand in hand with the incremental successes of the national men’s team

Compare that to the financial crisis hitting top-flight domestic English rugby. Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish rugby clubs have all departed from the Gallagher Premiership because of financial reasons. Meanwhile, Leicester and Exeter have had emergency financial measures to keep them afloat.

Why is the IRFU such a successful organisation?

Three figures show the extraordinary exponential financial growth of Irish rugby over the last two decades. The 2000/01 IRFU annual accounts record an income of just shy of €22 million. By 2010/11, income had more than tripled to almost €70 million. In 2021/22, it has risen to over €115 million, making it almost wealthier than the combined annual income of both the GAA and the FAI who boast far greater participation rates than rugby.

The economic transformation of Irish rugby has been nothing short of prodigious. Within 20 years, its annual income has increased almost fivefold.

Irish rugby has tapped into commercial contracts, advertising, merchandise, gate receipts, and money flowing from television rights because of the repeated successes of both the international and provisional teams. There is more to it than that though. Success breeds success and the IRFU has consistently pumped significant resources into developing the domestic game.

Player development

In 2021/22, the IRFU spent comparable sums on elite player development, €14 million, as it did on domestic and community rugby, €13 million. The IRFU has been rewarded for its long-term policy of investing massively in the grassroots with the strategic aim of increasing the number of players for the long-term development of the sport.

The IRFU annual accounts over many years follow a similar pattern. There are no great surprises. As IRFU chief executive Kevin Potts noted in a recent interview with the Irish Times, “Every penny we make goes into the game.”

The sport’s economic transformation has gone hand in hand with the incremental successes of the national men’s team. Those successes are not accidental. They are the deliberate consequences of the prudent financial backing of its underage and developing players. These structures cost money.

The formula is simple. The more money the IRFU makes, the more it invests in the game, the more professionalised it becomes and the better it becomes at winning.

Ireland’s performances at the Rugby World Cup have shown the consequences of that formula. O’Gara is known for his flare on the rugby field but in recent times he has also entered the annals of sport’s great motivational speeches. As O’Gara would say in a thick Cork accent, L’opportunité, c’est f***ing énorme.” The IRFU would agree.