Sport Rugby

Sunday 23 July 2017

Croke Park ready to listen to rugby's emergency call

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Croke Park has emerged as a viable alternative for Leinster and Ulster if their Heineken Cup games have to be moved from the RDS and Ravenhill respectively next weekend.

It would require a formal, and quick, approach from the IRFU to the GAA on their behalf, but a senior GAA source confirmed yesterday that Central Council, who have the power to decide on the issue, could expedite the matter one way or the other if such an approach was received.

A precedent for playing stand-alone rugby matches at the stadium was set as recently as last April when Leinster and Munster played their Heineken Cup semi-final there.

Moreover, Croke Park stadium manager Peter McKenna confirmed yesterday that the pitch was playable and that surrounding roads were negotiable. "If the weather was as it is today we'd be fine but if it got significantly worse then you'd have to revisit it," he said. "But I wouldn't see that happening."

McKenna said that a double header would be unlikely to have serious ramifications for the pitch, which has under-soil heating and has been kept defrosted throughout the cold snap, even though there is only a three-week gap to the opening Six Nations game there, against Italy, in what is a non-growth period for grass.

On the financial front, there is a precedent for ERC helping clubs who had been forced to move fixtures because of weather conditions. The harshest winter since 1982 has wreaked havoc on sport here and in the UK with yet more fixtures postponed yesterday, threatening a chaotic spring backlog.

And the revelation that conditions are now so cold that ground is frozen 30 centimetres below the surface means it could be a week after a thaw before pitches and racecourses are back to normal.

Hundreds of sporting events scheduled to take place this weekend -- including seven Premier League soccer matches, race meetings here and in the UK, and the entire Gaelic games programme -- have been cancelled or postponed due to frozen playing surfaces and treacherous travelling conditions.

The latest casualty was Munster's Magners League clash with the Llanelli Scarlets, scheduled for Musgrave Park this evening. The game was called off following an inspection yesterday morning after overnight temperatures in the area had plummeted to --9C.

"Given the forecast of lower temperatures and snow overnight, we felt it would be unfair to those travelling or planning to travel to leave a final decision until the morning and have therefore abandoned the idea of playing the game," said Munster Chief Executive Garrett Fitzgerald.

The cold snap means the Irish provinces may lose home advantage in the Heineken Cup if the freeze continues here and the Croke Park option doesn't work out.

"That's the nightmare scenario for us," ERC Chief executive Derek McGrath says. "ERC takes the view that this is the home club's game and clearly they want to satisfy the needs of their fans, but there comes a point where we have to agree together that the games have to be played because the knock-on impact is just not worth thinking about, both in terms of the tournament and the season.

"We then have to start looking at other options and they will include all and any options to get the games played. We have in the past moved countries to get games played."

Although the last weekend of January is free of Heineken, Amlin and Magners fixtures, that slot is currently taken by national camps across the six nations, as well as an Ireland 'A' versus England 'A' fixture.

Meanwhile, the Magners League will have to find time later in the season to reschedule the games postponed over this weekend and last.

The GAA is also facing a critical backlog after inter-county and colleges competitions in all four provinces were called off last week. Ard Stiurthoir Paraic Duffy admitted the impact of the icy weather was unprecedented in recent times, but said all sports were facing the prospect of widespread disruption to schedules.

"Everybody is in the same boat; every sport is in the same boat. They (games) can't go ahead and safety interests certainly come first so we will have to make the best of a bad situation as the weeks go on," said Duffy.

Though many games have been refixed for the coming week, that may be optimistic with Met Eireann forecasting at least 10 more days of icy conditions. Forecaster Gerald Fleming indicated that even after the thaw it will take days for conditions to get back to normal.

"Three weeks of consistently cold temperatures means that the ground is frozen up to 30 centimetres (1ft) down," he told the Sunday Independent.

While Ireland's two race meetings were called off this weekend, racing did go ahead on the all-weather at Lingfield and Kempton in the UK yesterday -- though it took three inspections before stewards gave the go-ahead after three centimetres of snow fell at Lingfield overnight.

Poor weather conditions have led to a prioritisation of National Health Service resources in the UK and cover was provided at the racecourse by private ambulance services.

With no racing here, trainers have been forced to take drastic action to keep horses fit during the cold snap. Trainer Willie Mullins, in his diary for Horse Racing Ireland, described the hardship involved in keeping the stables working.

"What a week! We've got four inches of snow at home right now and we are all starting to suffer from cabin fever at this stage. The roads are so bad we have hardly been able to stir, though we have at least managed to keep the horses exercised. In the evenings we are putting straw down on top of the sand gallop, which helps to prevent it from freezing. In the morning then we clear the snow off and we are able to do enough to keep everything going.

"The weather centres are saying that the cold won't let up until well into next week, so the worry is that Thurles' meetings on Thursday and Friday are already in danger. Having not had any racing since last Saturday, we could all do without losing those!

"Of course the long-term picture is a bit fuzzy now as well. If we continue to be held up from serious work with the horses, our preparations for Cheltenham in March will be affected," he said.

The Mallow Athletic Club 10-mile race scheduled for today has been cancelled. Over 1,000 entrants from all over Ireland and the UK were set to attend. A replacement date is being investigated.

In hockey, all Irish Junior Cup matches and all local league fixtures scheduled for this weekend have been cancelled. Leinster Men's and Women's matches are also postponed. There will also be no greyhound racing in Ireland over the weekend, with no prospect of racing until next Friday at the earliest.

Sunday Independent

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