Croker must get deserved lap of honour
TWO games to go and we're starting to miss Croke Park already. It's only been three years since rugby was first accommodated at GAA HQ but over the course of 12 internationals (and one seismic Heineken Cup semi-final) there are plenty of memories to savour.
The stats back this up -- eight international victories, three losses and one draw. And, of those defeats, only the loss to New Zealand in November 2008 could be described as comprehensive, while Croker has witnessed significant victories over world champions South Africa, France and England (twice).
Inevitably, the opening of the stadium in 2007 came with lashings of guff attached, best illustrated by the picture of a confused protester in a Celtic jersey holding a sign saying: "No To Foreign Games!"
As photographs go, that one was up there with the shot of the group of women protesting outside a men-only golf club while a smiling man stood behind with a placard asking: "Where's My Dinner B***h?"
The symbolism of England's visit to the home of GAA in 2007 may have been completely over-played but it was still an occasion of considerable historical significance and was marked by a wonderful Irish victory.
Croke Park is a hell of a stadium and, in rugby terms, is bettered only by Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Our only previous visit to Croker before 2007 was for one of the International Rules clashes between Ireland and Australia in 2004 (the one where a runaway terrier looked like the only performer capable of handling the chaotic nature of that makey-uppy sport).
When you are travelling up for one night only, it makes sense to pack your 'things' in with your lap-top -- which is all well and good until you take out your computer and a pair of boxer shorts drops onto the desk of the startled Gaelic scribe beside you.
But when the embarrassment subsided, it was possible to appreciate what a superb stadium the GAA had created to showpiece their games. The fact it was built with €110m of tax-payers' money and lay idle for much of the year made the arguments against opening Croke Park's gates to other sports particularly galling at the time.
But former GAA president Sean Kelly deserves tremendous credit for his instrumental role in making Croke Park available and, when the grand opening eventually came about, it was a massive public relations boost for the Association. Traditionally viewed as something of a Jurassic body, crippled by committees and mired in its republican past, the GAA was suddenly being praised for its progressive attitudes and willingness to do away with archaic laws.
Foreign journalists were full of praise for Croke Park as a top-quality sports venue and there were considerable financial benefits for the Association also, each rugby and soccer international was worth approximately €1.2m to the GAA.
Thus, after tomorrow's clash with Wales and the following week's meeting with Scotland, the 28 rugby and soccer games at Croker will have generated more than €30m in revenue for the GAA. The Association uses this money well, directing it towards "infrastructural projects", improving facilities and developing Gaelic games all over the country.
In 2009, the GAA generated more money than in any previous year in its history and it is estimated Croke Park was responsible for €18.5m of last year's income, up €2m on 2008.
It adds to the tangible sense of loss in GAA circles now that rugby and soccer are readying themselves for a return to the redeveloped Lansdowne Road.
Aside from a couple of minor issues (such as a low overhang in certain parts of the ground affecting a proper view), the new Lansdowne is shaping up to be a pretty impressive stadium also. Unfortunately, it is likely to be dogged by the reduced capacity issue, particularly for next year's Six Nations meetings with France and England when foreign media are sure to question why these matches are being played in a 50,000-capacity stadium when they could be sold out in the 82,300 Croke Park up the road.
The reasons are many and complex -- with an overall theme of relevant parties' hands being tied due to various contractual and planning issues -- but there is little point debating them because, at this stage, there is no going back.
So, we will enjoy Croker while we still can and watch the Ireland rugby team attempt to mark their exit in fitting style by claiming the Triple Crown.
Wales flanker Jonathan Thomas commented this week that, having won there in 2008, the Welsh team do not fear Croke Park. Doubting Thomas could rue those words tomorrow as rugby and Croker start their final lap together.