Blood and Guts Toland makes some fairly elementary mistakes in his column in the Irish Times. Most egregiously, he mistakes ‘the blazers’ for ‘the suits’ – not on, old boy. Not on at all!
‘The blazers’ are the IRFU committee, who are elected [by various quasi-masonic ballots] and are volunteers by nature and practice. They don’t get paid by the IRFU, but obviously there are loads of perks – tickets to every game, Six Nations trips to Rome/Paris/London/Edinburgh/Cardiff, official dinners [if you like that sort of thing].
While everybody likes to bleat and moan about the blazers, in their defense they are people who have devoted an enormous amount of their time to rugby as volunteers over decades. You’re talking about guys who have been heavily involved in rugby for forty years at club and provincial level [and many, including the likes of Phillip Orr and Tom Grace, at international level]. They are rugby men to the core.
People seem to forget that – volunteers are all well and good when they’re painting clubhouses and giving mock-emotional team-talks in advertisements, but the unpaid work that has gone into coaching and managing teams for decades, training youngsters, running the line, refereeing, working on club committees and spending a lot of spare time working in/for the game [often in frustrating circumstances] when rugby was nowhere near as popular as it is today doesn’t seem to stand to their credit. Funny that. It doesn’t mean the blazers are infallible, or that they’re all a great bunch of guys, but the cringe-inducing treatment of Brian McLaughlin at Ulster doesn’t really portray David Humphreys – a big Mole favourite as a player – as either an infallible decision-maker or a great guy either.
‘The suits’ are employees of the IRFU, led by Phillip Browne. They’re divided into ‘the suits’ proper, i.e. people who generally wear actual business suits and work at 62 Lansdowne Road, and ‘the tracksuits’ or ‘the trackies’, i.e. people who are involved with coaching the national team. So ‘the suits’ would be guys like Browne, Wigglesworth, Kevin Potts, Dec O’Brien and Scott Walker, while ‘the trackies’ would be the likes of Declan Kidney, Les Kiss, Mervyn Murphy and Mark Tainton.
This stuff is not exactly a secret. It’s all on the IRFU’s website – both the list of blazers and the list of suits. You just have to be able to read the matrix. Toland hasn’t done so, which is disappointing from a guy who has been involved in rugby at a high level as a player, commentator, analyst and journalist – he has mixed things up, and hasn’t really hit the target. He accurately measures the wood [the old 'measure twice, cut once' dictum scrupulously obeyed], scores the point of contact, lines up the nail, raises the hammer … and then wallops himself on the finger.
“Kiss (an extremely decorated and talented professional rugby man) is the man tasked with defence and offence. Does this not then make him the coach? If that be the case then what is Kidney’s role and is there confusion amongst the ranks?”
That’s the article right there. Toland is the first person in a pretty subservient Irish rugby media to ask that question … and yet he immediately abandons the line of inquiry before it gets too pointed. In attempting to cast a light on the perceived shadowy characters behind the throne, he loses focus. He doesn’t follow through on the provocative question about Kidney’s role, but skips a whole heap of that interesting content to land on the question of whether “the Irish rugby team [are] performing to their best and if not who judges them?”
The constant shilling for D-Humph – after he has kack-handedly overseen the mid-season announcement of his coach’s
sacking ‘non-renewal of contract’ without a successor in place, after Paul McNaughton has gone on the record about the IRFU giving the province extra cash purely to spend on top-quality NIE players, and before Ulster have actually wonanything – is embarrassing. Why not get in somebody who has actually done their job well, like Mick Dawson [of Leinster] or Garrett Fitzgerald [of Munster]? Oh, I forgot – they never played pro rugby.
It used to be you couldn’t do it if you hadn’t been an international, now it’s you can’t do it if you haven’t been a pro. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, it’s a bit pathetic: old pros trying to maintain their status in the rugby herd by insisting that only they know the secrets of rugby. Jake White admits in his autobiography that he was never much of a player. Rod Macqueen – right up there with the greatest rugby coaches of all time, in The Mole’s book – played a lot of club rugby for Warringah, but never any regular representative level stuff. Joe Schmidt? Very similar. Graham Henry lined out for Canterbury, but was apparently a better cricketer than a rugby player.
It’s one thing to be a good pilot, it’s another thing to be a good airline CEO. It’s the same field, but it’s not the same job. Michael O’Leary would probably steer a 737 into the ground like a dart, but he runs a hell of a profitable airline.
So if you want an analogy, consider ‘the blazers’ as the trustees [not shareholders, because there’s no reward for getting it right and no sanction for getting it wrong], look on ‘the suits’ as the directors [well paid and in a career path] and treat ‘the trackies’ as the key executives [like bank executives, well rewarded for good results but with a short future when its not going well]. Like it or not, this is the authority at the various strands. Ultimately, no ‘suit’ wings it without support from ‘the blazers’. Equally no ‘trackie’ can take a completely free rein without discussion and approval from a ‘suit’. In times past, some players progressed through the ranks of the ‘trackies’ to become eminent ‘blazers’ (Millar, Kiernan, Dawson & Murphy) but David Humphreys is probably the first pro player to become a serious ‘suit’ in Ireland.
PS: Some of Toland’s comments about John Delaney and Niall Quinn ‘[putting] their hands deep into their pockets for the fans’ – verge on the ridiculous. Delaney takes an outlandish €400,000+ salary every year out of the FAI, and Niall Quinn was up until recently the chairman of a Premiership football club, a league where the average annual salary of a player come to £1.46m [€1.75m], which’d suggest that he’s not struggling for cash either. Rugby ‘suits’ earn nowhere near those numbers.