Warning Signs for Pro Rugby

It was a spectacular weekend of success for Munster and Leinster in the European Champions’ Cup and it sets up another sellout Aviva Stadium in three weeks as well as the mass exodus of Munster fans to France.

One step further it creates the real possibility of an All Ireland Final in Bilbao in May. On top of the Grand Slam, it has been a season of wonderful success for Irish rugby.

Success though requires strong opposition in order to make it meaningful and keep the engagement of the fans.

The debate has been underway here throughout the Grand Slam as to Rugby’s position as ‘The People’s Game’. Whatever the merits for and against here there would be few hands up to claim the same in England and a story in this morning’s Times newspaper highlights the dangers this could present closer to home.

In the immediate aftermath of Saracens failure to win three in a row European Titles, the news is breaking that the 50 percent owners from South Africa, Remgro, want to exit the business.

They have been there for the last ten years, the most successful in the clubs history but when they leave they will write off £25 Million (€28.5 Million) in debts on money they have invested.

In the past four seasons, Wasps have lost a cumulative £15.3 Million (€17.45 Million). Remgro is a public company and while the investment was made mainly on personal and rugby grounds by the principal Johann Rupert, he is now quoted as saying that ‘One should not be using public shareholders’ money for your own loves.’

Co-owner Nigel Wray has suggested he will buy out the Remgro shareholding but in the longer term is looking still for other strategic investors.

The problem runs deeper than one club though. Last season only one of the twelve Premiership companies made a profit with Exeter Chiefs recording a positive year-end of £1.14 Million (€1.3 Million).

The other eleven each recorded a loss of between £477,000 and £4 Million for a collective red figure of £19.86 Million (€22.65 Million).

The Irish provinces are wholly owned and funded by the IRFU. The success of the Rugby World Cup and Nat West 6 Nations in terms of TV income and Sponsorship means that the sport at international level is thriving.

It is in the foundations of the club game though, the week in week out engagement and the creation and delivery of playing talent that the roots of the sport are based.

With three of the four semi-finalists in the Champions’ Cup coming from the supposedly ‘poorer’ nations of the PRO14, that is outside of the wealthier England and France, the idea of buying success is beginning to look a little frail. And when that happens, those who buy in to sustain the clubs become less enchanted.

Add in the possibility being mooted of downsizing the Champions’ Cup to protect player welfare among the teams of England and France and there is danger afoot.

The professional game at this level demands competition of the highest order. The warning signs are flashing that this may not always be there.

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