Everyone will gain if petty clashes are eliminated
The big three field sports can do more to foster co-operation, writes John Greene
Talk to any person involved in coaching at their local rugby, soccer or GAA club and they will tell you that there is a real battle going on between the sports, especially in or near urban centres.
Anecdotally there is little evidence of co-operation across the country's big field sports as they compete directly to attract children to their own game. At the top end, the three associations – the GAA, IRFU and FAI – now enjoy a very good working relationship, which is how it should be. But beneath that it is a very different picture and, sadly, young people are more and more being forced to make choices as seasons overlap and fixtures clash.
The growth of rugby in Ireland in the last decade means that football, hurling and soccer clubs no longer have things their own way. Rugby has expanded out of its traditional heartlands and is more of a national sport than it has ever been. This, of course, brings its own challenges.
Some years ago a GAA county board official received a phone call from a concerned teacher in a rugby-playing school. This teacher had heard that a school which traditionally played Gaelic football had introduced rugby to its pupils and he was horrified. "Is the county board just going to stand by and let this happen?" he asked. "Do you think we would allow football into our school?" Thankfully, many of the old barriers of entry into the different sports have been removed but there are still major obstacles to be overcome.
The biggest is in the attitude of those directly involved, those who apply pressure on young people to opt for one team or sport over another.
Given how well the GAA, FAI and IRFU now work together in terms of their national relationship – sharing stadia, ideas and more – what's needed is for all three to show leadership in this area. There is not enough co-operation between the sports at grassroots level to ensure that games and training sessions do not clash and that young boys and girls are looked after, especially those who want to play more than one sport.
An underage rugby coach recently recalled that several of his players turned up wrecked one day last year for an important game because they had been put through their paces earlier that morning at Gaelic football training.
This kind of thing is happening all the time. It is of no benefit to anyone, and while obviously parents need to take a role, it really is the responsibility of the sports themselves to tackle it. Given all the problems and rivalries associated with clubs at local level, the only way this situation can improve is if leadership and awareness comes from the top.
At the moment, there is very little communication between clubs across the sports in terms of managing players' schedules, organising games and training sessions so that clashes can be avoided. The situation is that each sport views the others as a direct threat, so this breeds unnecessary mistrust and division.
The GAA's support for the bid to bring the Rugby World Cup to Ireland in 2023 shows how far things have come in a relatively short space of time. It is only eight years since the momentous decision to open Croke Park to soccer and rugby was taken. The plan to stage the tournament in Ireland cannot succeed
without the GAA's support because at least eight of its grounds will be needed, and Croke Park will be required for the semi-finals and final.
Ireland has time on its side to get the bid right – it's not due to be formally lodged until 2016 with a final decision to be made in 2017 – so presumably in that time the GAA and IRFU will work closely together. If Ireland is successful, the IRFU will be hoping that the dividend for the game here is more than just financial. It will want the tournament to be a springboard to attract more people into rugby.
The GAA knows there will be huge benefits to rugby if the World Cup is staged in Ireland and has offered its support regardless. Presumably the GAA at national level sees no difficulties with the sports working side by side like this and is therefore to be praised for this approach. As co-owners of the Aviva Stadium, the FAI too will be involved. However, all three associations are no doubt also aware of the issues on the ground, and that all is not as cosy there.
Sure, 2023 is a bit away yet but a lot of work is needed in the meantime to develop and instill the kind of trust at local level that the big three enjoy nationally. It's in everybody's interest that they take action.