Virus poses 'significant' threat to existence of Irish rugby, warns CEO

Dublin (AFP) –


Irish rugby chief Philip Browne warned on Friday that the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic posed a "significant threat" to the existence of professional rugby in the country.

The game in Ireland has blossomed in the professional era. The national team has won two Six Nations Grand Slam crowns and three out of the four provinces have been champions of Europe.

Rugby was also thriving off the pitch under Browne's stewardship until the coronavirus hit.

Competitive rugby has resumed but Leinster's European Champions Cup quarter-final against defending champions Saracens on Saturday will be played in front of a handful of fans in Dublin.

Browne spelt out the scale of the problem to the Irish parliament's Covid-19 response committee.

He said Irish Rugby's net losses in 2020 were forecast to top 30 million euros ($36 million), and the situation would deteriorate "at an alarming rate" if spectators were not allowed to return to stadiums in meaningful numbers.

"The current projected position to the end of June 2021, showing a negative cash swing of almost 40 million euros from a cash surplus of some 28 million euros in June 2020, to borrowings of just over 10 million euros, backed by union assets, is very serious and is being kept under constant review," said Browne.

"If these projections were to materialise, the very existence of professional rugby on the island would be under significant threat in 2021."

- 'Chaos' -

Browne, who has been in his post since 1998, said losses in the period to the end of July were 10 times those initially predicted in January, before the virus struck.

"Until we can admit spectators in meaningful numbers into our stadia, and return to some level approaching self-sustainability, the whole rugby infrastructure built over the last 150 years is under threat," he said.

"The adjective 'unprecedented' has been overused over the past six months but our experience to date and history will show that if anything, the description of the 2019/20 season as being unprecedented is significantly understated," he added.

Ireland are due to play their rearranged Six Nations fixture with Italy on October 24 before travelling to France for the final round of matches. They then host Wales and Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup.

"Pre-Covid our financial situation was looking quite positive," said Brown.

"Now we are facing an unprecedented cashflow crisis, as we try to work towards the objectives of protecting our national men, women’s and provincial teams, ensuring that we preserve the amateur club game and support the jobs of our 500 employees to the extent that we can."