Wednesday 22 November 2017

Once so taboo, now the GAA hopes to convert rugby bid into cash windfall

Opening up Croke Park to rugby was lucrative for the GAA. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Opening up Croke Park to rugby was lucrative for the GAA. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's a sign of the changed times in Irish sport that the GAA are sharing the sense of excitement with the IRFU as decision time approaches on the country chosen to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The formal announcement will be made in May 2017 and, if the Irish bid is successful, it will be one of the most important developments in the country's sporting history.

The irony of the GAA's involvement in the bid is unmistakable, since it's less than 50 years that members of the Association were liable to be suspended for even attending a rugby or soccer game.

It's only 11 years ago since the GAA voted to open Croke Park to rugby and soccer while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped, a move that not only attracted huge goodwill but also accumulated €36m for staging international games over four years.

If Ireland win the right to stage the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the GAA will be in line for another double-helping of goodwill and cash.

The bid would not have been possible without the GAA agreeing to make several of its grounds available, a decision which was duly taken by Congress in 2013 on a 93-7pc majority.

Apart from Croke Park, which would host the final and some of the other major games, the GAA grounds in line for possible use are: Páirc Ui Chaoímh (Cork), Casement Park (Belfast), Gaelic Grounds (Limerick), Pearse Stadium (Galway), Elverys MacHale Park (Castlebar), Semple Stadium (Thurles), Fitzgerald Stadium (Killarney).

Not all of them may be required but with the IRFU in a position to provide only four venues, Aviva Stadium, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, Thomond Park and the RDS, several GAA grounds would be required.

Páirc Ui Chaoímh is currently undergoing a major redevelopment while there are also ambitious plans for Casement Park.

The Belfast project has run into planning difficulties but the GAA remains optimistic that they can be overcome in order to facilitate a state-of-the-art stadium.

All of the other GAA grounds included in the World Cup bid require upgrading to various degrees, work that would have to be financed by Government and/or the tournament organisers.

That would be the ultimate win-win for the GAA, resulting in several of its grounds being modernised without incurring any costs.

In addition, the GAA would receive rent money for all the venues, producing a multi-million euro windfall.

With the 2023 World Cup taking place in the autumn, it would not impinge on the GAA's games' programme since the All-Ireland finals are completed by the third Sunday in September, with proposals for an earlier conclusion to the season still under active consideration.

A small minority within the GAA remain unhappy with the decision to facilitate the World Cup bid.

They argue that it provides rugby with a massive promotional opportunity which could be to the detriment of Gaelic Games.

However, the counter-view, held by the vast majority, is that the GAA has a responsibility to put the national interest first.

Besides, opening up Croke Park for rugby and soccer in 2007-10 was hugely positive for the GAA on a number of fronts, including the financial end.

"The opposition (to opening Croke Park) was about fear, how it could damage the association etcetera. Those fears proved to be totally unfounded," said GAA Director-General, Paraic Duffy when Congress formally decided to support the 2023 rugby bid.

Duffy is now a member of the oversight committee of Ireland's Rugby World Cup 2023 Bid Board, which is chaired by Dick Spring, former Tánaiste, Labour Party Leader, and also a former Irish rugby international.

Irish Independent

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