Monday 27 February 2017

IRFU hostages to GAA-GAA thinking

SOMETIMES, it takes an outsider to scythe through the semantics and provide a proper perspective.

As we progress towards summer, the open-top buses are filling up with plenty of foreign visitors available to give their opinions on matters local. And, after the obligatory visit to Carroll's Irish gift shop and a tour of the Guinness brewery (with the dubious option of a horse-and-carriage ride under the guidance of a John Player Blue-smoking, tracksuit-clad jarvey), it is possible to elicit the opinions of visitors on Irish sporting issues at diddily-eye joints around the city centre.

To an Aran-adorned man they are fascinated by hurling -- waxing lyrical about the speed and skill levels in this country's finest sport.

Gaelic football? Meh.

"How can you have a sport where there is no proper tackle and guys just play for fouls?" asked one bewildered American in O'Neill's Irish pub recently, his bafflement only increasing when informed that the round-ball game is by far the more popular of the two Gaelic codes.

When the conversation turned to Croke Park and the fact that the country's biggest stadium will no longer house Ireland's premier international fixtures, the confusion levels multiplied, before swiftly switcing to scorn, culminating in a rueful shake of the head and a facial expression that screamed: "Crazy Irish."

The redeveloped Lansdowne Road has its official opening at 3.0 this afternoon. The 'wow factor' will be considerable and tomorrow's papers will be full of enthusiastic accounts and images of a state-of-the-art sporting facility. Yet, for all the eulogising, there will be an elephant in each expertly designed Lansdowne Road room today. Or, to be more exact, 30,000 of them.

Just in case you hadn't heard, Irish rugby is moving from an 82,000-capacity stadium to one that houses 50-odd thousand and you do not have to be a defender of the oval code to feel sympathy for the Irish Rugby Football Union. The IRFU have made the very best of a bad situation.

In these pages on April 19, Vincent Hogan traced this journey to Destiny's Pass in clear and concise fashion, a sorry story of political manoeuvring and vested interests that forced the hands of the IRFU and their FAI co-tenants. Hogan described how the GAA delayed the opening of Croke Park with "five years of hopeless inertia in which time the IRFU and FAI had to make their own arrangements".

Then, after the success of rugby and soccer's temporary tenancy in GAA headquarters, the association opened the stadium's doors indefinitely at the interminable talk-shop they call Congress. Particularly galling as it emerged that future rents would be set at more manageable levels than the contract binding, over-inflated rate of approximately €1.25m that existed for the temporary arrangement.

"So, just as it (Lansdowne Road) gets a final clean, the very reason for building the stadium went up in a puff of smoke. It's a bit like investing your life savings in a splendid house only to discover you've inherited an even bigger one," noted Hogan.

Now it is time to look at what happens next.

For the first few months, things should sail along pretty serenely. A combined provinces exhibition rugby match at the end of July is followed by a League of Ireland XI versus Manchester United and Ireland v Argentina soccer friendlies in August. The first competitive date sees the Irish soccer team take on Andorra in a September European qualifier, followed by a night of Michael Buble crooning and then the soccer side's second qualifier against Russia at the start of October.

None of those assignments should excite the capacity issue, the first fixture to do that will be the visit of the South African rugby team on November 6. Over 50,000 people will be in Lansdowne for this match -- last November 74,950 paid to see Ireland beat the world champion Springboks 15-10 at Croke Park. You do the math (as our American friend might put it). Two weeks later, the All Blacks are in town, the side that attracted 77,500 customers to Croker for their visit in 2008.

There has been a huge increase in the numbers following Irish rugby over the past 10 years and a sizeable chunk of supporters are about to find themselves shut out. If that is enough to cause angry calls to Joe Duffy next November, it is nothing to the anger that will be unleashed when England and France come calling in next year's Six Nations.

Public discontent attracts media attention and foreign journalists will not be overly concerned with the details when they pass judgment. Rugby will bear the brunt due to the Irish soccer team's unglamorous Euro qualifying pool and it is a public relations disaster waiting to happen.

Insurance giants Aviva have ploughed an estimated E45m into the redevelopment but have already attracted negative publicity due to the imposition of the 'Aviva Stadium' title instead of its old Lansdowne Road moniker. With such financial commitment, Aviva understandably want their name inextricably linked with the stadium and are equally adamant they will pull the plug if any attempts are made to move internationals back to Croke Park.

But, when public opinion rails against the capacity issue, Aviva are going to take a PR pummelling. The sensible solution is to switch the bigger games back to Croker, but that is further complicated by details such as fixed catering and security contracts.

This is an issue that will not go away and it is unfortunate that the IRFU will cop their share of flak, for they were pro-active when the GAA told them Croke Park was not a long -term option and have overseen the construction of a hugely impressive home for Irish rugby.

The blame lies elsewhere but that will not help when the abuse rains down. Defences will be mounted, positives accentuated and mitigating details outlined but, all the while, our international visitors will merely shake their heads, snigger and think: "Crazy Irish."

Irish Independent

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