Online media excluded from another important IRFU briefing 1 month ago

Online media excluded from another important IRFU briefing

Missing the fans. Missing their money. Missing the point.

On Friday, I learned that House of Rugby's two shows, in Ireland and the UK, had surpassed 1.8m views and listens since the lockdown measures recommended by our respective governments.

The feedback we have received - after putting out shows featuring the likes of Simon Zebo, Victor Matfield, Matt Giteau, Will Addison, Ben Youngs, Nigel Owens, Jean De Villiers, Mike Brown and Finn Russell - has been extremely positive.

We have been delighted to provide welcome distractions to folks trying their best to navigate their way through the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been some jarring stories told, as well as the uplifting ones we all need right now. The numbers are a mere cherry on top.

On the same day, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne held court on an online conference call with Irish rugby reporters for about an hour.

The timing was crucial as the union were waiting for the CVC Capital Partners acquisition of 28% of The Guinness PRO14 to go through, and for all the PR bells and whistles that go with it.

Browne spoke with the reporters off the back of a cash injection, over the next three years, of approximately €33m for the union. The IRFU's coffers were boosted in 2018 by the sale of 92 acres of lands at Newlands Cross, Dublin for €27m but Browne still believes government intervention will be needed to sustain rugby in this country over the coming years.

As reported by Brendan Fanning in the Sunday Independent, Browne was asked near the end of his online briefing if rugby could be played without one of the following being in place - a vaccine, rapid community testing or a treatment for those infected with Covid-19.

"Listen," Browne replied, "those are all good questions. I don't have the answer."

Browne did not have the answer but it will not stop sporting bodies the world over, the IRFU included, from making Plans A, B, C and Z-squared to try get some money back in the coffers again. Sport generates much-needed money for economies but the various bodies will know they are down the list of priorities, and have been for the past 10 weeks.

It is only now that the Covid-19 curve is flattening, in Ireland, that we are hearing the various sporting bodies exercising their vocal chords. Don't forget us. Remember how we used to be a massive part of your life?

And so it was, with various ifs, buts and maybes, that Browne outlined the union's best-case scenario for rugby to return later this year. Inter-provincial match-ups in August, wrapping up the Guinness PRO14's 2019/20 season with semis and finals in September (potentially doing likewise with the Champions Cup) and international games in October. If they have to be behind closed doors, so be it.

It would be great to tell you exactly what was said by Browne in that online call with the rugby reporters but, not for the first time, the IRFU decided to exclude several online outlets, ourselves included. Sky Sports, RTE online, Pundit Arena and Balls did not receive invites either. The42 was present.

As one can see in their releasing of EXCLUSIVE content - interviews with their own employees - the union views other online outlets as competition for their own digital platforms.

Andy Farrell Andy Farrell at an invite-only press briefing in December 2019. (Credit: Sportsfile)

This is the third time this season that the union has opted to ignore a number of online outlets. IRFU performance director David Nucifora and new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell both took part in closed door press briefings back in December, long before this pandemic brought about a need for controlled numbers at press briefings and social distancing.

A union spokesperson attempted to reason that, as SportsJOE's rugby lead, I was not invited to either the Nucifora or Farrell briefings because I did not travel to Japan for the Rugby World Cup.

JOE was in Japan, though, as our hugely popular House of Rugby show ran for 10 episodes and gave a real flavour of the tournament with the likes of John Smit and Justin Marshall joining Alex Payne, James Haskell and Mike Tindall for shows. Back in Ireland, along with SportsJOE and JOE's extensive coverage, Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby ran 11 shows during the course of the tournament.

Even if that was a valid IRFU reason to exclude a rugby journalist that has covered the team since 2009, and travelled abroad for many games, that excuse was soon blown out of the water. Another online journalist who had travelled to Japan, at great expense to his company, was also excluded from the briefings.

Challenged on that, a union spokesperson said they wanted to see evidence of our page views, social media traffic and more coverage (we already cover it) of Ireland's women and U20 teams.

Another brazen demand and another hoop to jump through. Another underwhelming World Cup but a union that was still trying to exclude the press from an open dialogue, and call the shots.

We are now living in an era where sporting bodies consider themselves as media competitors and boast about social media interactions and engagement. I am all for the union getting interviews with their own staff but it should not be done in tandem with cherry-picking select journalists and excluding others.

At a time when rugby is supposed to getting the message out to the masses, the union brazenly decided to send out invites to a select circle of journalists and exclude others.

It is disappointing to see that a global pandemic and a game under duress, and threat, has not changed the IRFU.

Preach to the select few. Aim for that 'A1' demographic. Disregard the wider public.

Any government bail-out or investment should come with the requirement that the IRFU no longer hides behind these cherry-picked interviews any more. The days of elitism and exclusion cannot continue.

They are either a sport for everyone or for no-one but themselves.