Oval double-diamonds

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Today, May 5, saw the official announcement of Umbro’s return to international rugby union as they are to take over the production of England’s kit.

While it might seem an odd fit for a firm so associated with football, the company has a history in the sport, supplying kit for Scotland, Wales and the Lions, among others. Umbro strips were also a common sight in rugby league.

More than a quarter-century ago the double-diamond was seen on the Ireland kit for just one season as the Irish Rugby Football Union entered the commercial age. Given how big an industry the sportswear market has become, it’s easy to forget just how far things have come in a relatively short space of time. In early 2014, the IRFU signed a six-year deal to return to Canterbury after a spell with Puma, with conservative estimates pegging it at around €3.5m annually.

When Umbro took over the IRFU contract from adidas’s Irish agent Three-Stripe International, things were a lot different – the game was still amateur, remember. The green jersey wasn’t a huge difference to what had preceded it, though Umbro had added gold trim to the crest and green triangles to the white collar, while ‘IRFU’ was added inside the placket.

In The Irish Press, Karl Johnston tried to sum up how new a departure it was:

Just imagine it – a fashion show in the hallowed precincts of Lansdowne Road, the oldest rugby stadium in the world. That humming sound you may have heard yesterday surely was caused by the founding fathers of the Irish Rugby Football Union spinning in their graves!

Well, it wasn’t really a fashion show just the official unveiling of Ireland’s new-look playing and leisure kit, designed (with some help from the players themselves) and supplied by Umbro. Umbro International, the giant sports gear firm which started from humble beginnings in Manchester, was represented by Peter Draper, marketing director. The firm’s Irish licensee if Topline [sic – the company is Toplion, and still holds the licence today], the company set up by Paul Deane, who introduced the new creations with the aplomb of a practiced compere.

The jerseys, tracksuits, leisurewear and what have you were modelled by two lithe young men, who looked suitably athletic. And the purists will be relieved to hear that the new national jersey has not been changed beyond recognition, is a big improvement on that which went before and been re-designed with impressive restraint.

There is also another jersey, more white than green, for use whenever Ireland is involved in a match in which there is a clash of colours. Whisper it, but it’s actually more attractive than the number one jersey, and don’t be surprised if you see the number two job being worn as casual gear by fashion-conscious young men and women.

All the items shown yesterday – and the range includes wind-cheaters, all-weather overcoat, a variety of tracksuits, kit and medicine bags – will be on general sale. Each member of the senior national squad will be kitted out, while underage and other squads will be partially taken care of.

IRFU president Charlie Quaid welcomed the deal made with Umbro and praised the quality products which are being supplied to the national squad. He expressed the hope that this quality will be reflected by the players’ on-field performances, and we can all say amen to that. The contract is effective immediately, and is for three years. Umbro are also suppliers of kit and leisure wear to the Scottish national squad.

Johnston gave mention to the alternative jersey, which was a new departure. Traditionally, Ireland had only needed to change when hosting South Africa, who had been in international exile due to Apartheid, and this shirt wouldn’t be used by the senior team but the ‘A’ side would wear it on a tour of the southern hemisphere in 1993. When a change was required in the past, plain white had been used but this featured green and navy horizontal stripes on the upper section.

Johnston’s colleague Seán Diffley, writing in the Irish Independent managed to get a steer on what the deal was worth to the IRFU, under the heading ‘Shirt deal collared’, but he focused more on the establishment of a trust fund for players.

The IRFU yesterday ushered in a new equipment deal with Umbro, believed worth IR£75,000 [approximately €95,000], and also announced the setting up of a Players’ Trust Fund.

Whatever about the torrent of magnificent gear, which, whatever else, will make the Irish team the best-dressed in history, the Trust Fund project will be minutely examined by the player in this season’s squad.

Later in the article, he focused on the commercial considerations:

Before Umbro won the deal to supply the gear to the Irish squad there was a bid by Cotton Traders but this was turned down by the IRFU. Fran Cotton, the former England forward, a principal in Cotton Traders, has been quoted as saying that his company never even got a reply from the IRFU to their overture.

That has been hotly denied by the IRFU, who say that they told Cotton, very politely, by letter last March that his offer was not acceptable.

A somewhat acrimonious situation seems to be developing in the background. An alleged attempt to whip up support for a certain brand among members of the squad seems to provide the perfect climate for a first-class row between the IRFU and the players in the wake of the Umbro deal.

On the other hand, that situation may just be part of the normal commercial tactics in the highly competitive sports equipment business. The players last night were not prepared to comment. One, who preferred not to be named, did say: “How can there be a controversy or a row when we only got together for the first time this weekend and the London Irish players did not stay overnight on Saturday? We just did not have time to digest what was going on.”

What does seem clear from the IRFU statements yesterday is that, while they will not hider the players in making arrangements, they will take a firmer hand to the tiller than heretofore.

Will the players gain anything from the Umbro deal? Paul Dean, the former Irish outhalf, who is the licensee for Umbro, introduced an array of jerseys, sweaters, boots of the highest quality with models showing the kit to good effect at Lansdowne Road.

The kit will be available in retail shops, the jerseys probably selling at the same price as the England jerseys supplied by Cotton Traders, IR£29.50 (€37). The IRFU will be entitled to royalties on sales above a certain threshold but I understand the threshold is so high that not much will accrue to rugby – or the players – from that activity.

So there the story rest for the moment, a strange tale of magnificent gear and dark tales of sharp goings-on behind the scenes.

As it transpired, the deal only lasted for a season rather than three and by the time of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Ireland were playing in Nike kit. It would be 1998 before Ireland  hosted South Africa, necessitating a change – the first time since 1970 that the country took to the field in white jerseys.

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