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Can GAA and rugby live together?

What's more, Eamon de Valera saw rugby as potentially Ireland's ultimate football game, suiting the Irish psyche perfectly and once suggested that "if all our young men played rugby not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them put together".

The inference was that the status of Gaelic games as the national games was depriving his beloved rugby of some quality sportsmen and, thus, blunting the impact of the national team.

Dev's enthusiasm wouldn't be lost on the hordes caught up in the frenzy that is Irish rugby these days.

If he was around now though, then Tom Ryan would surely like a word or two in his ear.

Early last week the outspoken former Limerick hurling manager found himself on the airwaves of Limerick's 95FM pressing his long-held belief that people have lost the run of themselves when it comes to lauding rugby in this country.

There was so much talk about Munster, Ireland and the Lions that it triggered such a power surge on Ryan's grid that several fuses blew and he took off on one of his trademark rants.


In referencing the selection of eight Munster players on the Lions squad, Ryan didn't want to hear that even this could compete with the traditional or cultural value of hurling and football.

He decried the "glorifying" of competitions like the Six Nations and Heineken Cup and the absence of any questions being raised against their prestige.

"Take my word for it," boomed Ryan. "This bandwagon will pass."

It was a typical wholehearted performance from Ryan, stirred by a sense that rugby's success in this country, since it got over its early wobbles of the professional era, is somehow squeezing the market share of his beloved game of hurling. But it was more from the heart, not the head.

Not surprisingly, given Limerick's status as the capital of Irish rugby, some 90pc of listeners choose not to agree with Ryan.

Many more, far away from Thomond Park, Dooradoyle and other hotbeds of the oval ball game in that city, would be inclined not to agree either.

Rugby in this country is in one of those grooves right now where it can do no wrong and any wrong it does it can casually get away with.

The emperor clearly wears no clothes. That's why rugby can name its competitions after drinks brands, douse each other in champagne after Six Nations and punch each others lights outs without much intense scrutiny or screaming headlines of disgust from the media.

It has the success to back it up and that's why there are droves of ticket hunters for this weekend's game between Leinster and Munster -- a Railway Cup final with a difference.

So, will rugby's boom soon turn to bust? Is Dev's sporting vision of Ireland to be realised? Have the GAA reasons to be uncomfortable and concerned that their significant market share is being eroded?

Ryan thinks not, but his views are somewhat at odds too with Mick O'Dwyer, who senses real challenges for the association that made his name.

The former Kerry maestro now sees rugby's tentacles reaching to places where they haven't reached before, even his native Waterville which, he reminded us in his autobiography, has grown new shoots of Munster support in recent years.

"The days are gone when Irish rugby was happy to live out a sedate life in fee-paying secondary schools and other small pockets around the country. It was no threat to gaelic games then, but in the new professional age it is developing rapidly as a global sport," he wrote.

"Rugby has another appeal too in that it suits the Irish psyche. (It's) a hard, manly game. Bear in mind that rugby has been a professional game for little over a decade, yet it has made enormous strides," observed O'Dwyer in his autobiography two years ago. It has quickened its stride even since O'Dwyer penned those words and some of the old barriers of aloofness have been torn down.

The GAA, of course, has been down this road before. Italia '90 had its spin-offs for Irish soccer and the same apparent sense of threat hung in the air for Gaelic games with the cult of Jack's Army.

But conversely the subsequent decade saw an extraordinary rise in the popularity of Gaelic games, particularly at inter-county level.

Twelve months on from Ireland's most successful World Cup, Meath and Dublin in a four-game Leinster first round football epic, and Cork and Tipperary in two epic Munster hurling final clashes, had provided the perfect riposte. The success of northern teams -- Derry, Down and Donegal and hurling's 'golden age', shaped by Clare and Wexford successes, fuelled a renaissance period.

Unlike Italia '90, however, the rugby heroes, like their GAA counterparts, are home-based. Ronan O'Gara is just as likely to pop out to his local shop or down to his local school as Henry Shefflin. They are real and accessible to their young audience. Whether it's Leinster players signing for hour-long queues in Dundrum Shopping Centre one Wednesday or visiting 'traditional' and 'non-traditional' schools on another Wednesday, a common touch, once the preserve of the GAA star, has been established.

GAA attitudes have changed too towards the perceived threats.

Almost 21 years ago the then GAA president John Dowling convened a meeting of key association officials in the Burlington Hotel to discuss what could be done to combat the onset of Ireland's participation in a first major soccer championship.

One of the upshots was to give every county £500 to promote and organise summer camps.

When the GAA launched its plans for Cul Camps in Croke Park recently the target figure for kids between the age of seven and 13 was 85,000, more than the attendance at an All-Ireland hurling or football final!

Nothing reflects this change in attitude more than the use of Croke Park. Some of those opposed to that move may see the hosting of Saturday's game as detrimental and in many ways a provincial fixture does strike more at the core of the GAA's values more than an international fixture because the GAA doesn't have such a vehicle.

But the obstinance of old that saw GAA fixtures at club and inter-county level clash with big international fixtures is gone.

For instance, the All-Ireland U-21 football final, originally slated for Saturday, has now been switched back to the Bank Holiday Monday where it is guaranteed more exposure and obviously a greater crowd. Where once it considered a weakness, now it is deemed common sense.

A greater pragmatism prevails now that focuses firmly on the development of its own product, a product it retains high confidence in. "It's up to us to concentrate on our own product and what we do we have to do well," said the GAA's coaching games development director Pat Daly.

"I don't think there will be a mass exodus from one sport to another. Rugby is coming off a low participation base, but there is capacity there that has to be guided by expertise."

Any evidence that kids are leaving Gaelic games in their droves for the local rugby club is purely anecdotal.

One club juvenile GAA coach contacted said he couldn't see any evidence on the ground that young kids have been leaving GAA clubs because of rugby's upsurge.

"There are kids who play both and there are coaches involved in both, particularly in towns, and schedules are worked around that. All we can do is make sure our games are organised efficiently and enjoyment is a priority. Our numbers are stronger than ever. Rugby's probably are too."

The ESRI hold different views and last year questioned the amount of public funding the GAA receives, noting that it was a sport in "relative decline", with more people signed up to gyms and fitness clubs than there were to GAA clubs -- 10pc as opposed to 8.4pc.

It wasn't that GAA numbers were falling off, reported the ERSI, it's that others were gaining ground. The findings infuriated the GAA at the time, who described them as "highly selective" and challenged them robustly.

But the new GAA president Christy Cooney has recognised that regenerating urban interest in Gaelic games must be a priority.

When the annual report to Congress was issued last month it made a point of revealing that that there were 2,610 affiliated clubs (291 in in the UK and around the world) and some 14,504 youth teams with over 1.5m attending inter-county hurling and football games.

"We have long since recognised that rugby has its peak time and GAA has its peak time. Does a great All-Ireland hurling or football final mean the end of rugby? Of course it doesn't," observed Daly.

Read the second part of the series tomorrow as Daniel McDonnell examines the effect which rugby's huge success is having on soccer.

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