Seán Moran: When the GAA were going to jointly-host this Rugby World Cup and other adventures

The bid for this year’s tournament was just one of the impacts on the association of major events in other sports

One of the big reservations about the new GAA calendar with its earlier start and machine gun scheduling has been how it loses out to big events in other sports. May is now the month of provincial finals but also when soccer and rugby club competitions hit their peak.

The season has now moved on to the more selective appeal of county championships and the even more selective attractions of a looming Special Congress but on the upside, there’s no battle for attention with the Rugby World Cup given that the ground is already vacated.

It’s a tournament that had a big impact on the GAA, as 11 years ago it was decided to co-operate with the IRFU’s bid to host this year’s tournament. Various venues were forwarded and, crucially for the GAA, a €30 million public subvention was secured for the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the knowledge that the Cork venue would be part of the application.

Enthusiasm and confidence ran high all the way up until the decision was made and there was dismay when the Irish bid was not alone rejected but all but abandoned and condemned to a first-round elimination and resentment at our ‘Celtic cousins’ in Scotland and Wales for backing other bids.


Maybe it was for the best. After all, Casement Park, one of the proposed venues, has yet to put one brick on top of another.

There had been form in this sort of thing with the comical Scottish-Irish bid for Euro 2008, which was to include Croke Park despite the unpromising provision of Rule 42, which forbade GAA venues to be used for other sports, including soccer and which wouldn’t be repealed until 2005.

In 2002, Uefa officials solemnly arrived to inspect the credentials of the venue despite it not being available to them. In the end, amidst some recrimination, the joint bid failed.

Next month Uefa are due to decide on the venue for Euro 28 and the road looks clear for a joint UK and Ireland application, which controversially ditched Croke Park as one of its venues earlier this year.

More happily from a GAA perspective, the bid looks likely to go one better than the Páirc Uí Chaoimh Rugby World Cup experience and provide that most of the funding for the beleaguered Casement Park project will be public funds.

For the GAA, the matter of high-profile international events in competing sports is a comparatively new challenge.

Thirty-five years ago this summer, Ireland finally reached the Nirvana of a major soccer championship. At first the GAA learned slowly, defiantly pitching provincial championship matches up against Ireland’s international fixtures.

In 1988, the rhapsodic defeat of England in Stuttgart played out at the same time as Armagh were beating Donegal in the Athletic Grounds. In a ‘nothing to see here’ kind of way, Ulster Council said that the crowd of 6,000 was “approximately” (it was actually 8,000) what they had got four years previously when the counties previously met.

Looking back it’s if anything surprising that as many as 6,000 attended in the circumstances and there was a vibrant buzz in the ground as transistor radios kept people updated.

According to The Irish Times the biggest cheer of the day was in response to Ireland’s victory, emerging by osmosis through the crowd although Paddy Downey lamented, ‘alas not over the loudspeakers’.

In general the GAA’s attitude evolved into one of putting the head down and getting on with things until the competing spectacle had concluded.

Had it been suggested back then that rugby would take over from soccer as the box-office threat, the reaction would have been incredulous. When Ireland reach the finals of major soccer tournaments the public impact is immense. Nothing compares with it in terms of widespread engagement throughout the population.

That looked to be the challenge that the GAA would be facing on an ongoing basis but it largely evaporated. In the past 20 years, two European championships represent the total exposure of the national team at that level.

A year after Italia ‘90, Ireland nearly won a RWC quarter-final. Amazingly, that remains the high point of the Ireland Rugby World Cup experience.

Twice, the quarter-finals weren’t even reached and of the other six, the average margin of defeat was more than 20 points.

Nonetheless, since the introduction of professionalism, rugby has become more organised and infinitely more successful, the one high-ranking professional team sport in the country and bringing home European Cups and Grand Slams even if the global stage remains strangely inhibiting.

Currently ranked number one in the world, Ireland’s place in rugby will be crystallised in the coming weeks – either as an enduringly sorrowful mystery or as a genuine power.

Yet the impact hasn’t been as great as may have been feared when rugby went professional 28 years ago. Access to a fully professional career in a home-based sport with comparable skillsets hasn’t proved a widespread lure for footballers – or hurlers. There are those who have switched in the past three decades but it hasn’t been an exodus.

As is often mentioned, the loss of players to English soccer and more recently the AFL, where Conor Nash chose to play for Hawthorn in preference to staying with Simonstown and Meath, or pursuing a Leinster rugby career draw equally from Gaelic games.

Cross-pollination hasn’t been a one-way process either, as Dublin’s rugby playing schools are now also producing footballers and hurlers.

Since Irish rugby started to win things around 15 years ago, the reassurance for the GAA was that historical norms would reassert themselves and that it wouldn’t be consistently competitive. That hasn’t really happened. Rugby hasn’t gone away.

But after all that, neither has the GAA.