Fundraising focus offers some respite to interpros
Series will reap the benefits of a few new departures, says Damian Lawlor
THREE years ago the GAA decided to put a halt to the interprovincial series for only the second time since 1927.
The competition had been put on ice for a season in 1990 until the GAA culled it again in 2010, this time cutting their losses for a few years, citing fixture pressures, demands on players' time, the cost of staging the games and a serious lack of public interest as reasons for shelving the once-exalted competition.
One GAA official privately admitted at the time that there was no room on the calendar, and not enough interest for it to continue.
Only for sponsor Martin Donnelly's continued backing it would have been scrapped a long time before that. Donnelly has almost singlehandedly kept this once-influential tournament alive, pumping in his own money in the process.
He listened to the players, realised that they still wanted to represent their province and looked for the words Railway Cup to be dropped in favour of a new title. He helped to bring the event around the world and subsequent interprovincial deciders were staged in Boston, Rome, Paris, London and Abu Dhabi. The revamped model didn't last long, though, prompting the GAA to call time on the competition three years ago.
Not for the first time when it came to policy and rulings, however, there was a U-turn at board level and the interprovincials were brought out of cold storage again last year.
Generally, their poor health remained the same. Dates were sandwiched between hectic league and club fixtures, some counties didn't release any of their players and the tournament's launch went off with a whimper. Crowds were poor.
This year, though, Donnelly must finally be able to make out some small chink of light at the end of the tunnel. Liam O'Neill, who helped turn an ailing international shinty series from a dead duck into a cultural event, has decided that future interprovincial series will now serve as fundraisers for deserving charities. This year it's hoped that Our Lady's Children's Hospital could get over €50,000 from the proceeds.
The finals have been billed as a family day out with players signing autographs and making themselves available for photographs with fans. Tickets are priced at €10 per adult and €5 for each child. Attendances and interest have been terrible in the recent past, with under 200 people attending one semi-final last season, but this initiative is a step in the right direction.
"I took a decision before Christmas that once we had a decision to hold the games, we would have some means to give a bit of life to it and do it properly," O'Neill said.
The series begins this weekend on an uncluttered weekend for the GAA, which is rare in itself. There was an inevitable hitch, though, with some upset at Kildare players' unavailability for the football competition.
Leinster manager Pat Gilroy (pictured) has named a strong squad including players from each of the top counties but no-one knows whether the Lilywhite players were instructed not to take part or if individual players opted out. They are not the first county to give the event the cold shoulder over the years and it remains to be
seen if they make themselves available should Leinster be involved in the final.
As long as it continues to exist, this series will arouse passionate debate. Men like Donnelly and Mickey Harte will fight for its survival but there will be just as many who don't want sight nor sound of it. It must be a positive though when marquee players like Bernard Brogan express a desire to be part of it.
"I haven't graced the final of an interprovincial so I'd love to do that and get my hands on a medal," the Dublin forward said. "The competition has been quiet over the last few years but it's one that I actually hold quite dear. I know in years gone by, and when my dad was playing, it was a huge event. Hopefully now bringing the final to Croke Park and getting the charity tied in, Crumlin Children's Hospital, will make it a bit more of an event and there'll be a bit of buzz."
If there's not, it's hard to know what's next.