IRFU chief executive Philip Browne has said the organisation needs to box clever to compete with their cash-rich English and French rivals ahead of a Six Nations that is "absolutely fundamental" to the resources of the game at every level in the country.
Browne admitted Ireland's performance in the upcoming RBS 6 Nations will determine how much money will be pumped into the game in this country.
Joe Schmidt's side begin their quest for a third Six Nations crown in a row next Sunday against Wales at the Aviva Stadium, and although the IRFU budget for a fourth-placed finish, Browne backed them to, once again, go above and beyond that target.
“What happens over the next six or seven weeks is absolutely fundamental to the resources of the IRFU and fundamentally impacts the resources available for the professional game in the provinces and indeed the amateur game," Browne told RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport.
“We sometimes have unrealistic expectations in this country – it’s a feast or a famine."
"Probably over 80 per cent of our income is generated off the back of the national team. It’s the bread and butter competition for the national team. We have a great team and a great coaching staff.
"We budget to come fourth and over the last number of years we've obviously been very fortunate in that we've done better than that.
“We’d certainly hope that we’re going to come in the top half of the competition but when you look at the fixtures and the way they’re aligned, Wales, France and then England, that’s a difficult set of opening fixtures. Having said that I think everyone is up for the challenge.”
Browne admitted the IRFU are facing a huge challenge to keep their brightest stars away from wealthy clubs across the water.
“The money that’s going into the Premiership and the Top 14 is significantly greater than the money that’s going into the Pro12," said Browne.
"It’s highly unlikely that the Pro12 is ever going to match the money going into the Premiership and the Top 14.
"Of course we’re concerned about what the consequences of that are, which is that there’s more money available in England and France for players. They can have bigger squads, they can buy players from around the world and obviously some of our players are on the shopping lists of some of the French and English clubs.
“We need to be a lot cleverer about how we use our money. We need to make sure our academy systems and pathway is as efficient and effective as possible so we produce more players of a high quality than we have done up to now.
“I have no doubt we have the athletes capable of playing at the level we need them to play at; what we need to do is make sure we have the systems in place to help them realise their potential.
“We sometimes have unrealistic expectations in this country – it’s a feast or a famine. Whilst people may think there’s a famine going on at the moment, it doesn’t take too long to turn that around into a feast."