Wednesday 18 September 2019

Colm Keys: 'Croke Park must go on the front foot as rugby threat to GAA grassroots increases'


'The crowd at the semi-final between the Dubs and Galway was a shot across the bows.' Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
'The crowd at the semi-final between the Dubs and Galway was a shot across the bows.' Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It's been interesting to observe the juxtaposition of the country's two main international field sports teams over the weekend.

In the space of four days, the soccer team played two scoreless draws with Northern Ireland and Denmark, scarcely getting a shot on target on either night in performances that have been met with general pessimism. The international team is, it seems, at its lowest ebb for some time and the governing body has had criticism levelled at it for not doing enough to avert that slide.

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In contrast, Joe Schmidt's team did what they did on Saturday night as rugby signed off on its most successful year that yielded only a third ever Grand Slam, a rare series win in the southern hemisphere over one of the main protagonists and then a first-ever home win over New Zealand. The union can do no wrong in the eyes of a loving public.

Rugby's rise has helped to create the perfect storm for soccer. But what way do the clouds overhead look for Gaelic games as this oval tempest brews?

The association has had similar challenges to the hearts and minds of its traditional base plenty of times in the past. More than 30 years ago Ireland's Euro '88 qualification prompted a crisis meeting of sorts for heads of Croke Park departments in a Dublin hotel to work a strategy mitigate its impact. The outcome was a few hundred extra pounds to the marketing budget.

Euro '88 came and went, so too did Italia '90, USA '94 and the other tournaments and successes that the international soccer team got a bounce from without ever really having the impact feared. As an indigenous sport, having no international vehicle will always be a disadvantage in terms of marketing and uniting a country in support behind one team.

The attraction of the games, the advance of 'new' counties, a shiny new Croke Park and some magnificent hurling championships, none more so than the mid-1990s and again this year, always had the impact of circling the wagons. Rugby's headlights have always shine brighter and higher in the GAA's rear-view mirror, however.

Last year the former Wexford hurling and football manager Tony Dempsey, who sits on Central Council, warned of the threat the growing popularity of rugby was to GAA, recalling to the RTÉ GAA podcast his involvement in the minor football team of his home club Davidstown-Courtnacuddy and how four of their players had rugby as their first choice.

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"That's new to rural Wexford, it's new to Ireland," he said. "We have to become aware of the challenge of other sports and we have to make our games more attractive to the players."

It's a snapshot but that threat was, equally, sensed by Dublin GAA only seven years ago when it felt Leinster Rugby breathing down its neck.

In the 'Blue Wave' document published just a couple of months after the 2011 All-Ireland football success, it claimed, without naming Leinster directly, that their use of blue as their colour was "subliminal exploitation" that hadn't gone unnoticed.

"Mutual respect is essential in Irish sport yet the appeal of a flourishing professional franchise is still a real challenge in the struggle for hearts and minds in Dublin while the demographic shift continues to distort traditional values and interests," the 'Blue Wave' roared.

Dublin's success and a strong coaching and games investment by the GAA in the capital has helped to preserve and grow market share.

Participation levels in rugby are still very small by comparison to the profile it currently enjoys on the back of its international and provincial teams, around 200,000 at the last count.

When the ESRI produced a 2015 report on participation, it wasn't even mapped as football and hurling came in at a combined 13 per cent participation with soccer at 17 per cent when walking and hiking were excluded.

By and large, fee-paying schools are still the conveyor belt to the blue-chip rugby teams and it's a game that prohibitive to some because of its physical and technical aspects. But that may change and the number of participants, especially at entry level, may grow. Anecdotally, there is plenty to suggest in areas that some of the more multi-talented kids are leaning that way. The IRFU had a marketing and communications budget of €2m last year and while most of that is directed at the top, the trickle-down is significant.

It leaves the GAA with no room for complacency. Summer Cúl camp participation is at record levels, numbers of underage teams in urban areas are growing but the drop-off rate from underage to adult is still alarming while rural depopulation, a fractured club-county dynamic and the spectre of a dominant Dublin football side, shows little sign of abating.

The crowd at this year's All-Ireland semi-final between the Dubs and Galway was a shot across the bows that something, somewhere is out of place.

Irish Independent

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