Eamon Ryan has made me stop and ask myself a question this week, when and where did I start watching rugby? At home on RTE or BBC? In the pub on Sky Sports? When my neighbouring school had a big match? The answer is option c. Minister Ryan would have us believe that we all sat down to watch a Six Nations match (or Five Nations match) in our front room and developed a love of the game that way. If I am completely honest, I did not watch much of the Five Nations when I was younger and the reason for this is not surprising. Ireland were absolutely terrible and there are only so many times you can watch your nation being beaten to a pulp. What Minister Ryan is trying to do now could leave us in a situation as bad as those times, rugby we can all watch freely but not necessarily the standard of rugby any of us really want to watch.
Making the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup free-to-air is on first glance a rugby supporter’s dream. While most of us without husbands, wives and children would probably go to the pub for the big matches, those who do not have the opportunity would be happy indeed. However, the money generated by the IRFU from pay-per-view is more important to the game than we may ever have imagined. The IRFU are facing a loss of €12 million worth of TV revenue if the Minister’s plan goes ahead . Either one of two things would then happen, 1) the IRFU would have to reduce budgets and thus lose players, coaches and scouts to other countries, or 2) they would have to find money from elsewhere. It is also possible that both of these scenarios could play out. If the IRFU have to raise money we will see match ticket prices as well as merchandise prices soar. The very supporter who would be saving money not buying the Sky Sports subscription would be hit from another angle.
Eamon Ryan does seem to have the interest of the general public in mind. He is trying to provide rugby for the whole nation rather than just those who are willing to pay to watch it. His argument that only the elite will be able to watch rugby seems ludicrous. Anyone of any financial status can afford a coke in the local pub if they really want to watch a match. However, more importantly, rugby has not gained its reputation as an upper class sport because of it being shown on Sky Sports. The private school culture of rugby has been completely responsible for that. If he really cares about more children seeing rugby should we not be promoting rugby clubs in disadvantaged areas? He worries that children will not be inspired to play rugby if they cannot watch it on television. Surely encouraging more people to play would be of more use than having more people watching from their sitting rooms? Parents will not be able to afford tickets to matches if the IRFU are forced to increase prices, once again pushing children away from the sport.
The IRFU have claimed that slipping standards, which would inevitably occur if the best Irish players were forced abroad, would also negatively affect them on a world stage. The International Rugby Board is only willing to listen to the strongest nations. As a country of just over 4 million people, we have been punching above our weight in this area for a long time. Weaken our rugby teams and you weaken our hand when it comes to the politics of the game.
So finally I refer back to the question posed at the beginning of the article. I believe that most people will give the same answer. If they were not watching their local team in their youth they were playing on it. The future of Irish rugby lies there, not on RTE 1 or 2.