End of an unlikely match made in heaven
IRFU's stay in Jones's Road has prompted the nation to take the sport to its heart like never before
Published 20/03/2010 | 05:00
They've invited Tommy Kenoy to take a seat in the Croke Park cathedral today. Many people will want to greet him with a smile and shake his hand and slap his back.
Kenoy - the Roscommona man who was a key mover behind the motion to suspend Rule 42 - will just want to watch the match. That's all he's ever wants to do when he comes to Croke Park. "The most important thing about today is that it is a Triple Crown match," he says.
Declan Kidney should invite him downstairs for a team talk.
A GAA Congress in April may yet decide to extend the offer of Ireland's solitary contender for a national stadium to both the FAI and the IRFU for future use, thereby embarrassing the latter two bodies who this week began laying the carpets in their rather less well-proportioned 50,000-seater stadium.
Until that happens, today will mark a valediction for what seems in 2010 an almost quaint form of particularly Irish nomenclature -- 'a foreign game' -- from the 'hallowed' turf of Croke Park.
The GAA top brass will be there, some of their number publicly proclaiming empathetic platitudes as they hold the door open for the rugby folk on the way out, while privately they set upon Nemo Rangers for the supposedly heinous crime of letting Drico and the lads hop a few oval-shaped balls off a wall not even vested in the GAA.
Like any Irish gathering to say farewell, there will be the proverbial admixture of hysterical hyperbole and diffident disdain.
It will not be difficult to spot the vast chasm between those who perceive the opening of Croke Park as something akin to this country's version of a Rosa Parks moment, and others who continue to seethe silently at what they considered another concession to dark imperial forces and a dilution of their core being as Irish people.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.
Today is both a farewell and a celebration; intense emotions are bound to be revived for many people who held deeply divided opinions on this issue. Yet two things remain cemented in stone.
First of all, regardless of what one felt, or feels now, about the political, sporting or social ramifications of opening Croke Park, the alternative brooked no further coherent arguments against it.
Whither this Irish rugby team had they been forced to toil away from home soil during the past four seasons? Could their plummeting fortunes following the 2007 World Cup ever have been possibly revived by being berthed in unfamiliar Cardiff? Hardly.
Secondly, there has been an imperceptible increase in those who want to retain the option for other sports to pitch up in GAA HQ. Lazily referred to as being 'liberal', instead this mood swing is more fundamentally rooted in logic, rather than idealism.
The €35m-plus which has filled the coffers of the GAA and, most importantly, been subsequently filtered through to support numerous projects on a wide geographical spread, has doubtless aided the conversion of one-time sceptics, including the GAA's current head honcho, Christy Cooney, a former advocate of the 'keep them out' brigade.
As much as it benefited the GAA, moving to Croke Park was also of immeasurable benefit to the IRFU, whose kinship to their Gaelic brethren was always fated to contain much more mutual warmth than that between the GAA and the FAI, whose relationship remains one predicated upon derisive long-range suspicion.
On a class basis, the IRFU and the GAA had much more in common despite common cultural impressions.
On a more elementary level, the game's roots had much more in common, from Michael Cusack's 19th-century early dabbling, through Kerry legends Mick Galwey and Moss Keane's 20th-century dual involvement, through Tomas O'Leary's 21st-century segue from All-Ireland winner to Grand Slam champion.
The foundations of a mutually beneficial relationship have always been there to begin with; that's what makes the IRFU's intransigence in signing away any remote future possibility of returning to Jones's Road even more baffling.
Maybe in spite of the last four seasons, the IRFU retains a far higher proportion of insular ingrates than housed within the GAA. If that is the case, then theirs would truly be an inhospitable reaction to what has been a four-year tour of duty on the northside of Dublin during which their sport has enjoyed an unprecedented surge.
Moving to Croke Park did not beget this historic boom time for Irish rugby but the link between the venue and, in particular, Ireland's Grand Slam heroes, will remain inextricably bound in the history books for all time.
So too the fact that the sport of rugby union in Ireland has been democratised more in this four years than arguably at any time in its history; it was not until Shane Horgan's momentous, Mick O'Connell-like leap in Croke Park against England in 2007 that the majority of the country realised that this son of Boyne went to a GAA school before emerging via the dusty pathway of Irish Youths rugby.
Although Horgan was then a seasoned international, the sudden spotlight on his back story shone far wider than the often narrow narrative of schools rugby and the stuffy committee men redolent of the Dublin, Belfast and Cork middle-classes.
Suddenly, this Irish team were no longer removed from the public; they became of them. From Wexford and Bruff, Monaghan and Tipperary town, the Irish team captured the hearts and minds of a public desperate to replace the then-discordant, distant international soccer team.
Before Ireland played France in February 2007 -- it wasn't a coincidence that rugby, not soccer, would become the first 'foreign code' -- the then-Dublin manager Paul Caffrey stepped in to advise Eddie O'Sullivan's side on the potential underfoot conditions.
The traffic has never been purely one-way. Ireland's fitness coach that day, Mike McGurn, is now a strength and fitness coach with a county -- Armagh -- who voted against Rule 42 in 2005.
Of course, it was the next outing in Croke Park against England which truly captured the public's imagination as the new living arrangements negotiated the visit of what was, for many, a neighbour steeped in antagonism.
It was the day 'we' grew up, and lofty commentators lectured of the day 'God Save the Queen' was played in Croke Park (for the second time, the Special Olympics preceded it by four years).
True, both that incredibly tense, pregnant silence before the anthem -- while the President Mary McAleese wandered towards her seat -- and the briefest of pauses after it, before thunderous applause and Martin Corry's polite, clapped acknowledgement, were intensely dramatic.
The English team had been accompanied that week by Special Branch officers and were warned that "anything might happen". This being Ireland, the full measure of opprobrium was represented by somone in a Celtic jersey waving an unwittingly ironic placard declaring: 'No foreign games'.
Ireland's once historically ambiguous relationship with this land's vile terrorists had been consigned to just that, history. It was slightly condescending that so many felt that we needed England's visit to Croke Park to finally confirm it.
More impressive that week was Eddie O'Sullivan's stirring rebuttal of some of the more facetious elements within the popular media who had been predicting armageddon.
"But when it comes to the event itself," he said, "the one thing we can say about Irish sports supporters, be it rugby, soccer or athletics, is that they're probably the best supporters in the world over the last 20 years.
"They're renowned for their capacity to embrace an event and be very positive about it. So despite all the people expressing their misapprehensions and fears, which is quite logical and understandable, when it comes to the time they'll embrace the occasion."
Few others encapsulated the relationship which was now being forged, through the prism of which Irish rugby was beginning to reach unprecedented heights of popularity; over one million viewers will watch today's Triple Crown decider.
Rugby's remarkable popularity will remain the most important legacy bequeathed to it by the sport's time spent in GAA headquarters, more significant in overall terms than the hugely impressive list of achievements attained while resident there.
Should they prevail against Scotland in the Six Nations this weekend, they will have won a Grand Slam and three Triple Crowns, having played 14, won 10, drawn one and lost three.
The team has grown there, from Vincent Clerc's last-gasp try, through the calamitous World Cup and last year's redemption, preceded by rugby men from all over Ireland displaying in Enfield the same sense of honesty and inclusiveness that mirrored so closely the integrity of those GAA men seeking to open Croke Park.
Rugby and the GAA share more attributes than many could have imagined. Getting to know them during these past four years has allowed all of us to be privileged witnesses to this mutual respect.
But, as Tommy Kenoy likes to remind us, the important stuff will happen on the green sward today. It is thanks to him and others like him that we can cast everything else to one side.