In his capacity as chairman of the Celtic Rugby board, the former Scotland captain and Scottish Rugby Union president was in a crowd of more than 26,000 which packed Limerick’s Thomond Park to capacity and witnessed an exceptional match between two magnificent teams.
Irvine has, however, taken over at a time of great importance for the competition as its first title sponsors, Magners, end their five-year involvement and new levels of backing are pursued. That represents both a challenge, given the financial climate, and potentially a considerable opportunity.
By getting in during the early days of the competition when it badly needed to show it could generate commercial support, the cider makers originally got a very cheap deal. However, the success of Saturday’s finalists Munster and Leinster in particular, but also the growing strength of the likes of Ulster, the Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets, has added to the league’s credibility.
Irvine’s appointment also coincided with the introduction of Italian teams Aironi and Treviso, bringing with added glamour and commercial possibilities, but their involvement means he must also oversee a re-branding of both the organisation and the competition.
As the chairman indicated, while reflecting on his inaugural year with the organisation, new sponsors are expected to be announced in the next few weeks for a competition that, for obvious reasons, can no longer be referred to as the Celtic League and is to be renamed Pro12 Rugby.
Irvine also admitted that close involvement with the Magners League has affected his perspective on what is required to be done to bring Scottish rugby up to the required standard.
In the course of this conversation with Herald Sport, Irvine clearly contradicted the claims of Gordon McKie, the SRU chief executive whom he played a major role in appointing, by admitting that a lack of spending power is undermining Scotland’s professional teams. He also showed a willingness to look at innovative solutions to those funding problems, calling on national government to look at offering tax breaks to leading sportsmen.
His first year as chairman
“I’ve found it really interesting. I understand it an awful lot more. I think it’s a fantastic competition and it’s one that as a nation we’ve got to try to compete in.”
The Magners League Grand Final
“It was international standard, the whole physicality of it, the speed of it, the quality of it and I thought the defence was just unbelievable, particularly when Leinster hammered away at the Munster line for what, three or four minutes? Munster’s desire to knock them back was a great spectacle.”
The state of Celtic/Italian competition
“It is at an incredibly high standard and at the moment a lot of that standard is down to the Irish teams. We can only look on with a degree of envy to a certain extent. Leinster and Munster have been there for some time and now Ulster are getting stronger, but of course they’ve got tremendous financial resources behind them. They are in the very fortunate position that they can bring in three or four real superstars.”
The uncertainty over future sponsorship
“There will be some announcements on that very shortly. I’m quite confident about that, so we’ve no problems there.”
The gulf between Scottish and Irish rugby
“You only have to look at the size and quality of their squads. I don’t know the numbers but I will be amazed if Leinster and Munster don’t have a significantly bigger budget than everybody else.
“The frightening thing for me is that the Leinsters of this world have got so much space capacity, financial-wise, that they are getting really first class academies and they’re going to get some great youngsters coming through in the next five years. We’ve got to try to be competitive. In fairness some of our results, for the size of squads and the amount of money we have, we sometimes punch above our weight.
“I watched Edinburgh not so long ago beat the Ospreys. I’d hate to think what their budgets are. I don’t care what anyone says, they’ve got superstars after superstars and our local boys beat them, which speaks volumes. However, let’s be realistic, we’ve got to try to get on a level footing with them and that’s going to take an awful lot of investment. I don’t know where that money’s coming from, but we’ve got to try to get there.
The weakness of the Scottish sporting culture
“I have to say I’ve been incredibly surprised at how Ireland have done it because if you go back 20 or 30 years I don’t think the crowds were any different from ours, but there seems to be a different psyche in Ireland towards sport. It’s not just rugby, they are massively enthusiastic about hurling and Gaelic (football) and they’re incredibly good at it. We as a nation do not seem to be so interested and we’ve got a massive bias towards soccer.
“It seems to be the only sport that carries a major following and to me that’s a huge disappointment, but it’s something we’ve got to try to battle against because one thing’s for sure, in professional rugby Ireland is absolutely leading the way.”
Addressing that weakness . . .
“It’s difficult for us. I think we’re trying to emulate it, but one thing’s for sure, if you don’t have anything like that level of funding it’s much harder to compete. Whether you like it or not money does talk and they have stacks of it.
“The Brian O’Driscolls, the Ronan O’Garas and the Paul O’Connells do not come cheap, but what I would say is that the Irish taxation system is hugely beneficial. My understanding is that if they remain in Ireland until the end of their careers they get all their tax back [through their pensions], so that is a massive benefit. You are talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds. That’s why they’re able to hold on to their top players, because of huge tax benefits. I would certainly encourage the politicians to look at that and it’s not just for rugby players, it’s for entertainers, it’s for artists, the whole entertainment business.
“There’s no doubt that if the Jason Whites and Kelly Browns were told, ‘By the way chaps, if you remain in Scotland it’s going to be hugely beneficial to you’, they would do it. What it’s done in Ireland is that they’ve now got such quality squads that they can generate huge crowds to support them. That crowd [on Saturday] was phenomenal.”