Taylor brings a touch of Seoul gold to drive Irish business

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Ian Taylor's lips were as tight as a bridegroom on a long stag night, but the worldwide web sang like a stool pigeon. Olivier Magne, the France flanker who is looking to leave Clermont-Auvergne this summer, announced on his personal internet site last week that London Irish might be his destination.

Ian Taylor's lips were as tight as a bridegroom on a long stag night, but the worldwide web sang like a stool pigeon. Olivier Magne, the France flanker who is looking to leave Clermont-Auvergne this summer, announced on his personal internet site last week that London Irish might be his destination.

Taylor started work as the Irish's chief executive only last Monday, the same day a wide-ranging financial review gave the Premiership a qualified thumbs-up, so he was understandably reticent when it came to bandying the names of possible playing recruits. He did concede that "even I've heard of some of them, so they must be well-known".

Taylor does not claim to be an expert on rugby, though he once taught it. His principal sport, as anyone of an Olympic bent will know, was hockey. He was the goalkeeper - the "man behind the mask" - for Great Britain in the halcyon days of a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, and gold in Seoul four years later. Taylor played for Slough for seven years, while he was also teaching PE, then went into sporting administration with, among others, the ice hockey Super League and, most recently, Sport Scotland. Now he is back on familiar territory in the Thames Valley, masterminding Irish's further development at the Madejski Stadium in Reading.

Thus far, Irish have confirmed the signings of two forwards: Danie Coetzee and Michael Collins, a South African and a New Zealander. The Exiles have long been casting their net in southern-hemisphere waters, but when it comes to headline captures such as "Charly" Magne they have to feel their way. The salary cap, which with inflation will top £2m for the first time this year, is but one consideration in a still-young professional sport.

Monday's report by the chartered accountants Saffery Champness was the result of a three-year independent review of England's Premiership clubs, which indicated a growing viability. Irish were one of four clubs - with Leicester, Northampton and Gloucester - to show a profit on the balance sheet last season. Average turnover per club over the period was up by 31 per cent to £5.7m, and total matchday income increased 42 per cent to £18.5m. Premier Rugby's total revenue leapt 52 per cent, driven mainly by broadcast agreements signed in 2001.

But caution is the watchword. There isn't a Premiership club around without something to worry about, never mind Harlequins, who were relegated to National League One and predict a drop in revenue of around £3m.

"London Irish have a fantastic facility at the Madejski Stadium," said Taylor, "whereas some other clubs are up to or near to capacity and urgently need to expand to cope with demand. We can accommodate 24,000 people, all seated, and the average attendance this season was 10,658. But the rate of growth of our attendances compared with others is a possible concern, plus we are tenants, which means, for example, we earn next to nothing from the catering. It makes no difference to us whether a fan at the match has one pint of Guinness or five."

Consumption of the black stuff will nevertheless take on a greater significance across the board next season when Guinness become the title sponsors of the Premiership, replacing Zurich. The brewers' approach is to "work with the clubs to build excitement around the games and enhance the fans' experience". Considering Guinness also have two years remaining as London Irish's shirt sponsors, it is a win-win for Taylor. Everywhere the Irish go, from Gloucester to Newcastle, their backer's name will be on their shirt and around the ground.

"For all the clubs, it's about attracting people to a facility to be entertained," said Taylor. "Most people are prepared to travel up to 40 minutes for general entertainment, but there's another catchment area where London Irish have a key advantage, and that is the brand which people can lock into. We employ highly professional people to run the rugby [Brian Smith, the former Wallaby and Bath backs coach, recently arrived as the director of rugby alongside the coach, Gary Gold] and highly professional people in the commercial department. My job is to bring together those elements for the benefit of the business."

London Irish have eight major shareholders, together owning about 90 per cent. "They've invested heavily, but the company has to stand on its own two feet," said Taylor. "We have to trade profitably if we are to invest in the future of rugby." One London Irish board member wondered privately whether this season's relegation scrap would panic clubs into a wages boom. The average annual salary for a senior Premiership player in 2004 was just under £60,000.

Taylor is in favour of promotion and he supports the salary cap. "Historically in football the growth in wages has outstripped the growth of the business. We can't have that in rugby. The product must improve, but we don't want to put the league or any club at risk, because it's too expensive to compete with a couple of clubs at the top spending millions. Harlequins laid off 13 people this week, and like anyone else I think it is very, very sad. But that is the difficulty of being in such an enjoyable and emotive business. Sport does not sit easily with financial reality."

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