Wednesday 18 October 2017

Vincent Hogan: Sad farewell to rugby's emotional Croker union

The Irish players are left dejected on Croke Park after losing the last scheduled rugby international in the stadium to Scotland on Saturday
The Irish players are left dejected on Croke Park after losing the last scheduled rugby international in the stadium to Scotland on Saturday
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was a pity that the final, memorable acoustic of rugby in Croke Park should be a cacophony of jeers for a visiting goal-kicker. Dan Parks may or may not have noticed. His winning strike was such a brazen read of the wind, chances are he heard nothing at that moment beyond some inner voice preaching cold procedure.

Still, the din was ugly and disappointing. It spoke of a loss of grace brought on by the realisation that this Triple Crown maybe wasn't to be grasped from the cheap shelves after all.

You wonder how we'll remember it all in our dotage. Ireland's four years in Croker were book-ended by two defeats that cost the team silverware, yet it was ultimately a time of plenty. They played some wonderful stuff and carried themselves impeccably.

You think of the great, emotional prairie that the GAA had to cross before opening their doors and it all seems a little inexplicable now.

Imagine telling Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell that their presence on the Croke Park sod might, somehow, have soiled the legacy of other Irishmen? Then again, I don't suppose rugby was ever the real issue. Letting soccer in was, for some, the equivalent of daubing a swastika on Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.

Still, it took pretty twisted nationalism to sustain the fight for as long as it ran. And a damn bad business sense.

Now we know that the sea didn't boil up, the sky didn't blacken, starched birds didn't topple out of trees when Croke Park's gates opened to the outside world. On the contrary, the outside world came in and availed itself of a history lesson.

The stadium and all it represents now has a global recognition factor that would have been unimaginable without the suspension of Rule 42.

It has certainly been one of the unspoken little pleasures on the seventh floor press gantry to observe the incredulous stares of visiting rugby journalists when they first step into the home of an organisation they cannot fathom could possibly pass as amateur.

At Cheltenham last week, this column was gently upbraided by an old colleague for our role in that recent tawdry spat with Wales coach, Warren Gatland.

This man is of Ireland, but living in the UK and reckoned that the language used flew in the face of our tradition as cordial, respectful hosts.

And it's probably true, in isolation, the words did look a mite gratuitous in tone.

That said, they weren't written or published in isolation and we'd still be inclined to argue that the column in its entirety was immeasurably more rational than portrayed.

Nonetheless, the commotion had its consolations.

We particularly enjoyed Warren's dismissal of us as someone who was "more of a GAA man," as if this constituted the ultimate dunce's cap.

Maybe Warren imagines the job of chronicling an All-Ireland Championship summer to be some kind of rehabilitation programme for people who've slipped the wrong side of the tracks.

It could be he sees the gig as a half-way house between a first offence and Wheatfield.

But he was sitting in Croke Park as he said it. Didn't he bother to look around? The place looks wonderful under a pastel sky in March.

Could he not imagine it when there's pampering heat in the wind and the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary are taking hurling to the realm of art?

So, being described as "more of a GAA man" didn't quite feel like Groucho Marx was stubbing out a stogie in my best slacks.

Deep down, I think the entire GAA community has grown a few inches in stature since the decision was taken to extend a welcoming hand to the IRFU and FAI. And, in hindsight, maybe Saturday's game was an illustration of one team's desperation just to write an appropriate letter of gratitude.

Ireland, at times, looked to be trying too hard to decorate the occasion with a Barbarians' flourish. Their rugby was like beautiful handwriting, all plump whorls and fish-tailing letter-ends. They didn't so much try to beat Scotland as dazzle them with light.

The Scots, in turn, just waited for the show to ebb and Parks, with his stiletto sideburns, kept picking us off with sniper-fire.

And, through the stands, a little grace began to leak away.

The winning kick flew through that late hailstorm of jeers like a defiant spark from a fire everyone had just presumed spent. And so rugby was suddenly gone from Croke Park, lurching south with a heavy heart.

The silver saucer awaiting will sting the eye with its beauty. The Aviva looks set to be splendid and, on the really big days, insufficient. No matter.

Croker and rugby was, on the whole, a pretty good union. So, turn out the lights behind ye folks, close out the door.

Slan abhaile as the GAA voice on the tannoy said.

It's been emotional.

Irish Independent

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