Donal Lenihan: It beggars belief Munster aren't bringing Leinster to Páirc Uí Chaoimh

Best estimate suggest that, even with  Cork GAA receiving a decent rent for the stadium, Munster could pocket an additional €350,000 by staging their St Stephen's Day game against Leinster in Cork.
Donal Lenihan: It beggars belief Munster aren't bringing Leinster to Páirc Uí Chaoimh

FITTING VENUE: A general view during the match between Munster and South Africa Select XV at Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork last year. Pic: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The annual visit to Lansdowne Road last Saturday for the biggest interprovincial derby of the season continued to yield not only a win for Leinster in terms of URC points but an early Christmas present for the hosts in terms of another financial killing.

The bean counters in Leinster’s impressive high-performance base at UCD must thank their lucky stars at the regular November pilgrimage that had attracted 45,000 ticket sales a week out from the game and an official attendance on Saturday night of 49,246.

Last season, a similar audience of around 46,000 generated a net return of €1.2m for Leinster, roughly €600,000 in excess of what would be banked if the game was played at the RDS. Leinster budget for this annually given that the additional funds make a big contribution towards operating profitably every year.

While the gulf in class between the teams over the last decade hasn't always led to a full house, Leinster stuck with it. Last weekend's contest marked the 15th occasion since the revamped arena was opened in 2010 that Leinster hosted Munster at the Aviva Stadium.

I find it strange that their counterparts down south have allowed another year pass and refuse to smell the coffee when it comes to maximising the financial return from the reverse fixture given the increased appetite on a supporter-friendly St. Stephen’s Day when fans are itching for something to do.

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Quite how Munster haven’t looked to capitalise on the multiple benefits to be derived from staging the fixture in Pairc Ui Chaoimh beggars belief. Munster have already dipped their toe in the water with the game against a South African A side in Cork last November.

That experience, on all fronts, was a resounding success. A young and inexperienced team not only achieved a morale-boosting victory that proved transformational in terms of their season, the fact that all 41,000 available tickets sold out in three days offered proof positive of the appetite for hosting such games in the south of the province.

If some form of reassurance was needed to confirm that wasn’t a one-off occurrence, the fact that the venue has all but sold out again - by all accounts only terrace tickets remain - for a mouth-watering clash against Super Rugby’s perennial winners, New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders on a Saturday night in the midst of the Six Nations Championship next February, must surely have registered with the provinces finance department.

My inquiries and best estimate suggest that, even with the Cork County Board receiving a decent rent for the stadium, Munster could pocket an additional €350,000 from a combination of ticket sales and corporate events by staging the Leinster game in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

Even if they only generated an extra €35,000, the capacity to grow their audience, to attract a younger and wider footprint from other sports and expose them to the experience that following Munster rugby offers would pay even further dividends in the long term.

There’s a reason why American NFL teams play games abroad. This year alone seven of their franchises are involved in games at Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur’s stadiums in London with two more games taking place in Frankfurt with a view towards broadening their fan base.

New Zealand and South Africa regularly rotate their home internationals between different venues in order to cater for their supporters. I am only talking about a rotation within our own province, perhaps with alternate venues such as Semple Stadium in addition to Pairc ui Chaoimh warranting consideration for this fixture into the future.

From speaking to a number of the players who experienced that wonderful Thursday night against the Springbok outfit last year, they not only loved the novelty of everything that transpired but are already relishing the prospect of repeating the dose against the Crusaders in the new year.

Munster’s success in winning the URC last season, coupled with the refreshing brand of attacking rugby favoured by Graham Rowntree and attack coach Mike Prendergast is resonating big time with the wider public.

Further evidence of that was seen at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night. It proved a real bonus for the bumper crowd that, not only could they pay homage to the departing Leinster and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton who was introduced before kick off, but that 21 players who featured for Ireland at the World Cup saw game time on the night.

Leinster’s strength was underlined by the fact that 14 of Andy Farrell’s squad made Leo Cullen’s starting team. Jordon Larmour, a member of Ireland's 2019 World Cup squad and with 30 caps under his belt already, was the odd man out.

No other side in Europe carries anywhere near that depth of quality. Having been turned over by Munster at the death in last season's URC semi-final at the same venue, it was clear all week that Cullen’s men were on a mission of atonement.

When the teams were confirmed on Friday, the quality of Leinster’s line-up coupled with the fact that Munster were set to start without key figures in Peter O Mahoney, RG Snyman, Mike Haley, and new signing Alex Nankivell whose made a big impression since his arrival from the Waikato Chiefs, saw the odds swing considerably in favor of the home side.

How refreshing therefore to see Munster continue with the exciting brand of attacking rugby that saw them reach new heights last season. The opening try, finished superbly by Craig Casey in the corner after only six minutes, showcased everything Munster have been striving to achieve.

It highlighted once again the attacking threat Shane Daly, Calvin Nash and Antoine Frisch have to offer when backed by the coaching team with Simon Zebo also offering a timely reminder that he still has something to offer the Munster cause.

GALLOPING EFFORT: Munster's Simon Zebo and Leinster's Jordan Larmour and Hugo Keenan. Pic: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
GALLOPING EFFORT: Munster's Simon Zebo and Leinster's Jordan Larmour and Hugo Keenan. Pic: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

As an organisation, Munster have made great strides on the field in recent times. The academy system has been streamlined and integrated with the full professional set up with the best young players in the province being exposed to training with the big boys on a daily basis. The benefits of that are plain to see.

There is also a better alignment with the Munster clubs beavering away in the All-Ireland League which has led to a greater buy-in from all interested parties. This hasn’t been the case for some time. When Rassie Erasmus and Johann van Grann were in charge, they had no interest in the health of wider game within the province, more focused on achieving short term goals.

To his credit Rowntree, perhaps fueled by his days as a player with Leicester Tigers and the encounters his great side, led by Martin Johnson, had against that superb Munster team of the noughties, has a far greater understanding of what makes this place tick. The addition of former Blackrock schools and multiple Crusaders Super Rugby winning prop Oli Jäger to Munster ranks is another sign that the province still has big pulling power.

In order to remain competitive, and in the light of the recent losses incurred by the IRFU, it’s imperative that Munster do everything within their own remit to maximise their earning capacity. That, in turn, contributes towards remaining as competitive as possible on the field. It’s why Munster’s reluctance to follow Leinster’s lead and generate as much revenue as possible from this special head-to-head is difficult to understand.

Thomond Park is Munster’s revered home. Nobody disputes that but playing a competitive game at Pairc Ui Chaoimh every year has the capacity to pay dividends on so many fronts. At the very least, why not start by rotating the St. Stephens Day fixture between venues annually in order to test the water?

I live in hope.

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