Tuesday 12 December 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Road less travelled still worth taking for GAA

‘Páirc Uí Chaoimh is probably going to be a beautiful a beautiful ground but how often will it be filled, even half-filled?’
‘Páirc Uí Chaoimh is probably going to be a beautiful a beautiful ground but how often will it be filled, even half-filled?’
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

When the IRFU announced its bid for the Rugby World Cup this week there were a lot of GAA people wondering where the catch was. On paper, it looks as if this is a complete win-win situation for the GAA - they get somebody else to pay for improving their grounds and get a big lump of money for rent as well. It might even make some of the decisions regarding the building of stadiums around the country look half-sensible.

The policy of building big stadiums in the GAA has been badly flawed for a long time and it would be indeed ironic if this helped to land the biggest tournament in the world that Ireland is capable of hosting.

The idea of several counties in Munster, for example, all having big stadiums is absolute lunacy and a huge waste of scarce resources which should be going into coaching and games instead of building mausoleums. There is no need for more than four grounds around the country to have capacity of more than 35,000. Croke Park can do the rest.

They should be strategically placed and take little account of existing provincial structures as they won't last forever. In Munster, one good venue is sufficient. What all the counties should be striving for is a stadium which should hold ten to 15,000 in comfort with good training facilities and floodlights. There are seats in most of the big stadiums in Munster which rarely have had a bum on them. This is waste.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh is probably going to be a beautiful ground. How often will it be filled, even half-filled? I read this week that it may be debt-free but someone has to pay. The Government part is €30 million, €20m from Central Council, €3.75m from the Munster Council and €10m from Cork County Board. Did anyone ever think that this money might be better off spent in a different way? Say, for example, on a ground costing half that price with the rest going to upgrade the main stadium in the province and a big lump of the money going on human resources.

Anyway, that train has left the station and there are training facilities as part of the whole development yet the venue itself is located in a place which could hardly be termed spectator-friendly.

If the GAA have taken an enlightened approach to the Rugby World Cup bid, it should embolden those who see the potential of renting GAA property in general to other sports when it suits. In a small country the idea of a closed shop makes no sense. When Croke Park was hosting rugby and soccer there was a dividend for all counties and very many clubs. It should have taught everyone that there is nothing wrong with taking your neighbours' money and spending it to improve your own facilities.

The GAA should have an open-door policy where all county boards have the power to earn money for themselves by renting out their property. Does anyone seriously think that decisions made would be anything but in the interests of the organisation? It does smack of the GAA not having sufficient confidence in itself and therefore coming down with this blanket ban.

The main need for money in the GAA is coaching, particularly at primary school level. We all agree that the amateur ethos of giving time and energy is worth protecting but having coaches going into schools creating a love of games and a joy in playing is something nobody else who has a full-time job can do.

It also links in young people with no tradition in the GAA into the local club. The volunteers then must do their work on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Part-time and full-time coaches working together in a mutually beneficial way.

By secondary school, it is too late. If young people get to their teenage years without an introduction to the GAA then the bird has flown. This is especially true in many of our new multi-cultural schools where there is an opportunity to involve whole new groups. It may take time and a lot of investment but the potential is there to unearth new wells of talent.

This is the way forward and the GAA has also to do more work in working-class areas. In many respects the GAA has become a middle- to upper-class game and the growth has to come from other groups. Like every army on the move, the GAA has to watch its back.

All of this is made more significant by falling attendances at county level. That in itself is not a good barometer of the health or otherwise of the GAA. Of much greater importance is the numbers playing at club level especially at underage; that is where hard work pays off.

Anyway the falling numbers at county matches is probably just a sign of boredom with an uncompetitive games structure and poor entertainment. There is no real commitment to tackling either of these issues and, like most things in the GAA, the problems have to become obvious to the blind before they are tackled. So we make fixtures in provinces which are absolutely irrelevant and people vote with their feet.

There is no doubt it would make for a wonderful tournament to have the Rugby World Cup in Ireland. Part of the attraction would be going to see some of the smaller nations in action. They don't have any chance of winning and it is a bit like the qualifiers when they came out first but now people have tired of the ritual maulings. Just as well the Rugby World Cup only comes around every four years or the same would apply and inevitably it is three or four from the southern hemisphere and four or five from the northern. As predictable as the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The biggest plus would be the number of visitors and the chance of supporters from Tonga, Fiji or Samoa going to MacHale Park in Castlebar. The natives might not let them go home until they turn out for Mayo in Croke Park and get them over the line. Whatever works.

The GAA should also learn a couple of other things from rugby. How many people were able to watch Ireland beat the All Blacks in that historic win in Chicago? Very few, I would imagine. The vast majority could not watch as it was on pay-per-view.

The GAA have dipped their toe in this water and seem hell-bent on pursuing a policy of exclusion. These sort of things come back to bite you. Another thing in rugby is that professionalism has destroyed crowds at All-Ireland League level. So the GAA should be absolutely committed to helping bring the Rugby World Cup to Ireland but after that the paths diverge.

Robert Frost, in a famous poem, wrote that "two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference".

The GAA road which is less travelled is keeping to existing principles while being good neighbours to the IRFU, avoiding pay-per-view, maintaining the amateur ethos and teaching young people that giving has its own rewards. It does not sound very glamorous compared to professional sport but it is back to the road less travelled.

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