Economic uncertainty facing IRFU casts shadow over Ireland's return to Six Nations action

Tom Cary
·3 min read
On the pitch, Jacob Stockdale will be deployed at full back for the first time against Italy - GETTY IMAGES
On the pitch, Jacob Stockdale will be deployed at full back for the first time against Italy - GETTY IMAGES

Ireland head into their Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy in Dublin on Saturday against a backdrop of huge economic uncertainty with IRFU chief executive Philip Browne warning that if crowds do not return in the coming months the union will have to “drastically” cut its budget. 

While attack coach Mike Catt spent Friday talking up the “huge future” of debutant Hugo Keenan, and the debate over Jacob Stockdale’s switch to full back continued apace, a far bleaker picture was being painted away off the pitch. 

Announcing a €35.7 million deficit in the IRFU’s report for the 2019/20 season, Browne admitted the financial impact of Covid-19 was being felt across all four provinces. The IRFU, he said, had had to step in to pay the provinces’ share of player and staff wages on loan terms, due to Munster, Leinster, Connacht, and Ulster’s inability to cover the costs at present. Players in Ireland - where the game is centrally contracted - are already on a 10 per cent salary reduction, along with a further 5 per cent salary deferral until December. But the IRFU has scope to increase that to 15 per cent if certain financial markers are not met.

As a result of the financial uncertainty, the IRFU’s high performance director David Nucifora has not even begun contract negotiations with stars such as Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls, all of whom are out of contract in June 2021.

“Whilst the provinces and the IRFU are currently solvent, that ultimately is a time-limited situation and unless there is a return to some level of normality within the next 12 months, with matches being played in front of some reasonable level of paying spectators, the IRFU and the provinces will have to drastically cut their budgets to ensure costs are covered by the lower revenues,” Browne said. “The return of the game is in a fragile state and a major outbreak of the Covid-19 virus could set us back.”

Rugby Nerd REFERRAL (article)
Rugby Nerd REFERRAL (article)

On the pitch at least, Ireland will hope for a positive performance to lift spirits against Italy. A bonus point win will move Andy Farrell’s men to the top of the Six Nations table, one point clear of England and France, ahead of the final round of fixtures in which Ireland travel to Paris.

Catt said he expected Leinster wing Keenan to make a big impact, hailing the 24-year-old Ireland Sevens cap's selfless approach. "Hugo has this unselfish want to chase the ball, his kick-chase, he's unbelievably quick, unbelievably fit, and he's settled in very, very well. So I see huge things for him, he's got a huge future.”

Ireland great Rob Kearney, meanwhile, who has retired from rugby since the spring, said he believed Stockdale had what it took to make a top-quality full-back. The 24 year-old, who played age grade rugby at 15 before establishing himself as a wing for Ulster and Ireland, has been selected at full back for the first time against Italy due to Jordan Larmour's shoulder injury. 

"I played against him in my last game, we were both full-backs," Kearney said of his ex-international team mate. "He certainly has all the attributes to make a really good full-back. He's strong in the air, he has a good kicking game, he's fast and powerful.

"You only get a full appreciation of how somebody is going to be after you've seen them a few times.

"I think it is unfair to judge someone after one big game, you need to see them play at international level for three or four games on the bounce."