GAA can hold its own despite rugby surge
It is amazing that in an organisation that is celebrating it's 125th year, so many people are wondering if rugby will be the new GAA.
Following the achievements of the Ireland and Leinster teams in recent months there seems to be an impression that young men are going to flock in their droves to play rugby and turn their backs on 'the games of the Gael'.
A few developments have emerged in recent years to nurture this belief -- not least the number of former GAA players who have played for Ireland, but there is little doubt also that the staging of games before record-breaking crowds at Croke Park has been one of the prime reasons why rugby is currently so popular.
For a century or more there were clear distinctions between the GAA public and the rugby public which ensured that the two sports remained almost isolationist in the overall picture of Irish sport. This largely emanated from two sources -- the secondary schools system with the classification into 'rugby schools' and 'GAA schools' and Rule 27 which banned GAA players from playing rugby (and soccer) or even attending rugby matches. For their own reasons both organisations liked to believe that THEY were the elite ones in Irish sport.
But Irish society has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, with attitudes to sport also changing. Rule 27 was removed in 1971 and gradually players got involved in both sports at local level. The sporting segregation, however, changed very little until rugby coaches started operating in many of the famous GAA schools, but without a major similar response in the other direction.
But that too is changing and Blackrock College players, Mark Vaughan and Mark Davoren, are currently on the Dublin GAA team and this week well-known rugby player Alan Gaughan joined the Westmeath panel while Wicklow player Tommy Walsh played with Tullow RFC during the winter.
All sports in Ireland have become more user-friendly and there is a huge floating audience for GAA, soccer and rugby at the highest level. The growth of live television has influenced this, but the explosion of interest in rugby has been the most dramatic.
So, is the GAA really threatened by the growth of rugby in nearly every county in Ireland? The short answer is no. While rugby is the glamour game now, that is largely based on world-class success by Ireland along with Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup. But success at that level is transient in all sports and will be replaced by less glamourous results in time. A similar situation emerged in the 'glory days' of Jack Charlton when the whole country was caught up in World Cup fever and we all thought that soccer would swamp the GAA. It didn't.
There is a fundamental difference between the structures of the GAA and the other two football codes which prevents the GAA from declining drastically for any significant period of time.
Whereas rugby and soccer are well established in specific centres around Ireland, the number of centres is quite limited at the highest level. There are no front-line soccer or rugby teams in counties like Laois, Offaly, Kilkenny, Longford, Leitrim, Cavan, Meath, Roscommon, Tipperary, Kerry, Clare, Fermanagh or Carlow, among others. The glamour teams in those sports tend to be in the cities or large towns.
The GAA, on the other hand, has its calling card available in each of the 32 counties through its inter-county teams along with a club in every parish.
There has been tremendous growth in soccer and rugby clubs at lower levels and this should be a worry for the GAA because there is a limited number of young people in rural areas, and already many GAA clubs are often stuck for players as rugby and soccer teams make their impact locally.
Undoubtedly the GAA has suicidal tendencies that facilitate the growth of the other sports. The television pictures from Celtic Park last Sunday is an example. There are thousands of parents who are influenced by these ugly scenes and some of them will direct their children to other sports.
Fixtures chaos at club level in the GAA is one of the biggest recruiting grounds for soccer and rugby, but dirty play is one of the biggest blots on the GAA. Week in, week out, there is media coverage of fighting, suspensions, appeals and a general sense that anything goes in the GAA. This is manna from heaven for other sports.
As regards the Leinster rugby team, some GAA people will worry about the decline of Gaelic football in the same province with no All-Ireland success this century. That cannot be good for the GAA at the doorstep of the all-conquering rugby province.