We watched Leinster Rugby host Ospreys for a very rare home loss. We can’t go to home games due to the pandemic and so we watched on TV. There was a degree of horror for home supporters as Ospreys scored 21 points in the last twelve minutes to win by 24 point to 19. Leinster had the game in the bag from half time but did nothing to consolidate their 19-3 advantage.
The game held no real meaning for Leinster because they have already won the division and qualified for the final. The unlikely win for Ospreys rewards them with a third place finish which in turn qualifies them for Heineken Champions Cup rugby for next season. That was their huge incentive, future television royalties.
Meanwhile, there is a problem at Leinster that needs to be discussed. Leinster played Ospreys when 12 of their squad were away on Ireland duty, preparing to play England today. Leinster had at least nine players out for long term injuries. These enforced withdrawals create opportunity for younger players to play at club level while still in the Academy (and sometimes the pre-Academy). And so successful is Leinster that have used 57 players this season in all competitions.
But where’s the money coming from to pay everyone a living wage? And how does Leinster manage the long term health of players if they’d have to draw from a smaller roster, meaning that each player would have more game time?
It’s not just Leinster. The most successful teams in Europe have been the only four that have won the Heineken Champions Cup in the last ten years. Toulon (3), Saracens (3), Leinster (3) and last year’s winner Exeter. There is a player concentration problem. Encouragingly, there are hugely different business models behind the success of each of these teams. That Saracens were brutally punished for breaking the payment rules in England speaks of what it takes to maintain the winning habit.
Leinster players are contracted by the IRFU as is true for the rest of the provinces. It means that Ireland has first call on the players. It also means that when international games are curtailed, the revenue stream is compromised and so, it becomes harder to pay the players.
The pandemic is breaking many things. Rugby in Ireland is losing money hand over fist. That’s unsustainable. The future looks bleak even if Leinster win the double this year. Bleaker yet for Connacht, Munster and Ulster and therefore, in the longer term, Ireland.
Funding rugby in Ireland may need to be reinvented. Especially if the big South African teams are coming to make the Pro14 into the Pro16 and thereby reduce the chances for Irish league success in the short term.
I read the IRFU annual report here: ‘Commenting on the Annual Report, IRFU Chief Executive, Philip Browne, said: ‘It is no surprise that Irish Rugby has experienced one of its worst financial years ever. COVID-19 will continue to challenge us all until a vaccine is available and we are very grateful to the government, our sponsors and our patrons for continuing to stand with us at a time where we are unable to fill the Aviva Stadium with our fantastic fans.”