This weekend rugby teams from all over Europe will clash in the RBS Six Nations. Here Saphora Smith sits down with the tournament’s organiser and one of the most powerful men is sport, John Feehan.
As sports fans across the land will know, as well as some who wished they didn’t, the RBS Six Nations rugby tournament is now well underway. And what a tournament it has been! We’ve had a nail biting Calcutta Cup, a controversial Welsh win over Ireland and all the drama of a snow cancelled fixture; not to mention all the usual crunching tackles and snazzy handling that makes rugby union such a great sport to watch.
In light of all this, it goes without saying, I was particularly excited to meet with John Feehan, the TCD alumni with one of the most enviable jobs in the world (if you’re an alpha male that is). Indeed, as CEO of the 6 Nations, the British and Irish Lions and RaboDirect Pro 12, Feehan is a man at the top of most blokes ‘people I’d like to have a pint with’ list and last week I got the chance to interview him.
“Whatever you do”, my dad said when he heard about my interviewee, “be sure to ask for a couple of tickets’. Much to my Dad’s disappointment I did not ask for tickets, or indeed get given any; but I did get a good look inside one of the big brains in international Rugby.
Meeting Feehan at his swanky Ballsbridge head office the day before the 6 Nations kicked off (pun intended) I didn’t really know what to expect – some busting rugby bruiser the size of a family car? An atypical sportsy primadona who speaks purely in platitudes (‘its a game of two halfs’ etc)?
Soon after we met, however, my mind was put at ease. He was relaxed and charming and as I walked though the memorabilia-filled headquarters with complementary coffee in hand (I am a student after all) I began to realise just how big a business sport can be – a fact personified by the Gordon Gekko-esque desk and chair from which this CEO runs his shop.
Feehan is a Dub, middle-aged and is built like a rugby player, a tight-head prop to be exact, who once played for Leinster to be even more exact. Rugby was clearly an early passion (he was a Trinity rugby scholar) and yet, as he explains, he never saw himself or considered it an ambition to work in rugby.
After leaving Trinity Feehan embarked on all sorts of jobs including work at a major brewer (how laddy can one lad be?) and initially joined the 6 Nations as Commercial Director. “I sort of stumbled upon the job”, he says before making plain that, as the head of a nine-figure firm, he is a business man and not a rugby player “I report on money, I’m judged on money, I have to make money”.
Feehan’s job, like any business man, is to sell rugby to consumers. So, I ask him, what makes his product, his sport so great? Why should Arsenal fans hang-up their shirts and switch channels to watch Wasps or London Irish? “Because it’s exciting”, he quickly replies. “It’s different, there’s a lot to it, it’s not just kicking a ball around”.
Clearly many share his opinon – every year rugby (both union and league forms) get more and more popular. For Feehan this is evidenced not only through rising ticket demand but also by an increase in media attention (“there has bever been such buzz and hype”, he explains) and the evolution of rugby players as celebrities.
And, he hopes, with the Rugby Sevens entering into the Olympics in 2016 this trend is only going to get stronger. “We hope this (Rugby Sevens) will have a knock on effect for Rugby Union”, Feehan describes, “the idea is that nations with no tradition of rugby will pour money into training and the development of the sport with the view to picking up medals at the Olympics”.
And all this despite an international recession? “Corporate entertainment may diminish as it did in South Africa for the last Lions Tour”, he responds nonchalantly, “but you’ll always fill the stadium”.
As one of the world’s favourite sports rugby is able, as well as generating oodles of cash, to wield political power as well. The 1995 World Cup, for example, helped South Africa re-establish itself after the turmoil of the Apartheid era.
In Ireland too, however, rugby has played a part in uniting an often divided nation. “Rugby is more historical than it is political” is Feehan’s considered response on the matter adding “It harks back to the time before civil war, before the struggle for Irish Independence”.
Politics, dosh and rugby aside I’m keen to know what this CEO thinks of Trinity. “I had an immensely happy time at Trinity”, he says, “it offers a unique experience in that it is a campus university snuggled in the heart of Dublin”.
But what about Trinity students? With our plummeting position in the world rankings and the continued budget cuts, is Trinity still as respected by business as it was 20 years ago? “It is no doubt still a culturally rich place, a centre of learning…but when it comes to hiring its more about the person sitting in front of you rather than their university”.
Finally, I ask him if he thinks he’s got the ideal job, that is if you can call being paid to fly to Scotland on Sunday to watch international rugby working. “Well it’s not half bad”, he says modestly, “but at the end of the day a job’s a job”.
This leaves me with an odd sense of despondency and bitter realism – if Johnny Feehan, CEO of the 6 Nations, the British and Irish Lions and RaboDirect Pro 12, still gets the Sunday night blues, is there any hope for the rest of us?