Monday 22 May 2017

Tommy Conlon: It shouldn't take a world cup to bring GAA venues up to scratch

The Couch

Seán Kelly MEP:
Seán Kelly MEP: "There’s no way it would have been politically acceptable to give €30 million to Páirc Uí Chaoimh if Croke Park hadn’t been opened." Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Liam Neeson's monologue suggests that Ireland's campaign to host the Rugby World Cup will not be taking no for an answer.

In its stylish promotional video, released last week, the great Hollywood actor lays it down thick for the elite rugby blazers who will cast their all-important votes this time next year.

"I don't know who you are," he intones in that mellifluous Ballymena drawl. "I don't know what you want. But if you don't give us the 2023 world cup, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you."

Ooops. Might've got our movies mixed up there. But it was difficult not to watch that artful piece of propaganda without thinking of Neeson's famous warning to the chap who has kidnapped his daughter in Taken.

But the overall approach towards capturing the world cup will be to kill them with kindness. The makers of the video managed heroically to compile the 90 seconds of suitably evocative images without resorting to a single shot of a pint of porter, or of fiddles and bodhráns flailing away in a pub.

It doesn't mean however, there won't be a good dash of blarney in the presentation.

The Irish bid committee will rightly be stressing the warmth of the welcome, the contagious hospitality, when they start wooing the nabobs of world rugby over the coming months. Drico was already at it during the launch last Tuesday when, as a bid "ambassador", he yakked away about the Ireland of the hundred thousand welcomes. It must be said that it didn't sound fully convincing, when filtered through the great man's rather vanilla D4 vocal inflections.

The bid committee should add Paul O'Connell to its list of travelling ambassadors. He has the aura and the articulation to silence any crowded room into a respectful hush. And unlike Neeson, he didn't need a script writer when he wanted to convey some meaningful menace: "Did you scare anyone? Did you put the fear of God into anyone?"

O'Connell's famous words were uttered in the dressing room before Ireland played France in February 2007. This was method acting, without the method or the acting.

It was the occasion of the first rugby international at Croke Park. A fortnight later it was England who rolled up to Jones's Road. They were duly sent packing by a rampant home team in front of an ecstatic 81,000 crowd. Oh bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, for it was by common consensus one of the most special days in the history of Irish sport. A month after the England game, the first soccer international was held at Croke Park, a 1-0 win over Wales in the European qualifiers.

Three years later, after 27 internationals in total, the rugby and soccer teams moved back to the reconstructed Lansdowne Road. They left the GAA a fairly substantial tip for the rent of the hall - about €35 million, give or take.

Nowadays you'd wonder what all the fuss was about at the time. All the rancour and bigotry and general stupidity of the GAA's diehards and bitter-enders.

Speaking of which, a few of them on the Cork County Board are still hanging around since that particular culture war in the early 2000s. They did everything they could to keep the doors of Croker closed back then. When they lost the vote in 2005 it was like swallowing poison.

Last Wednesday they gave the media a tour of the work-in-progress on the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 24 hours after the Rugby World Cup 2023 campaign was formally launched.

Now their new stadium will be a guaranteed venue for 2023, should Ireland win the bid. And no one batted an eye down in the bunker on Leeside last week.

But it's a bit easier to cling to one's prejudices when it doesn't cost you anything. Páirc Uí Chaoimh will cost €80 million. It has received government funding of €30 million. The grant was conditional on the ground being available for a future Rugby World Cup. "There's no way it would have been politically acceptable," said Seán Kelly MEP last year, "to give €30 million to Páirc Uí Chaoimh if Croke Park hadn't been opened."

It was Kelly, of course, as GAA president who finally broke the Ancien Régime by steering the repeal of Rule 42 through Congress in 2005.

The irony now is that the big GAA venues are queuing up to get a slice of the world cup action, should it materialise. The chosen winners will receive hefty windfalls to revamp their grounds, not to mention the tourist dividend for surrounding businesses.

And the revamps are badly needed, with or without the rugby tournament. The GAA has been brilliant at building stadiums. It has been abysmal at building comfortable stadiums. It has been abysmal in the way it has treated its crowds. Essentially, they've just herded people like livestock into these breeze-block sheds for more than 100 years, and expected them to pay through the nose.

Beyond Croke Park, the most basic creature comforts from seating to shelter to toilets to food have never been a priority. Women supporters, in particular, have been neglected.

The facilities as they stand will not be acceptable for a major international tournament. But they were never acceptable anyway and it shouldn't require a Rugby World Cup to force the GAA into looking after its people with a little more care and consideration.

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