Wednesday 13 December 2017

Martin Breheny: It's lunacy Ireland v England showdown isn't played at Croke Park

Six Nations clash could yield €2m more in GAA HQ than Lansdowne

The public would have been the winners if Croke Park could have hosted the Ireland v England showdown. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
The public would have been the winners if Croke Park could have hosted the Ireland v England showdown. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

On Sunday week, thousands of sports fans will face disappointment when they can't attend the Ireland v England Six Nations game because of the ticket shortage.

With a capacity of 51,700, Lansdowne Road, now answering to its corporate alias Aviva Stadium, is too small for the really big rugby attractions, especially Ireland v England, when both are going well.

Across the Liffey in the 82,300-capacity Croke Park, the silence will be broken only by the whirr of pigeons' wings as Europe's third largest stadium lies idle.

It has 17,300 more seats than Lansdowne Road, more than twice as many corporate boxes, plus 13,300 terrace places, all of which would be happily occupied for a clash like this.

Ireland fans celebrate victory at the final whistle following their 18-11 win over France
Ireland fans celebrate victory at the final whistle following their 18-11 win over France

Based on ticket prices for the France and England games (€130 premium, €95 to €55 stand) and allowing for the extra corporate boxes, each game would have yielded €2m more in Croke Park than Lansdowne, while allowing an additional 30,600 to attend.

Of course it won't happen because the stadium-naming arrangement, reputedly worth €4m per year, requires the IRFU to play all the big games in Lansdowne Road.

So that's it then - case closed. In practical terms, yes, but it highlights yet again the sheer awfulness of what has passed for stadium policy in this country.

Could the IRFU not have applied some restrictions on the Aviva deal, allowing them use Croke Park on certain occasions? It would, no doubt, reduce the financial return from Aviva, but Croke Park's larger capacity would more than compensate. The public would certainly benefit.

Imagine how the GAA would have been pilloried if it refused to open Croke Park to rugby and soccer.

Yet, when the ground is on offer, but not availed of because of a commercial deal, silence reigns, despite so many people missing out on a chance to enjoy some massive sporting occasions. It's another example of stadium lunacy.

Away from Croke Park, the GAA has become trapped in a different stadium bind. Director-general Paraic Duffy conceded in this year's annual report that "based on attendance patterns of recent years, only five fixtures (Munster hurling and football finals, Connacht and Ulster football finals, All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals) outside of Croke Park, are likely to attract an attendance of 25,000."

Yet, the GAA will soon have 10 venues capable of catering for more than 25,000 and a further two with a capacity of between 22,000 and 25,000.

"The reality is that we have too many grounds with excess capacity," wrote Duffy.

France's centre Mathieu Bastareaud (L) clashes with Jonathan Sexton
France's centre Mathieu Bastareaud (L) clashes with Jonathan Sexton

Despite that, two major redevelopments are planned for Pairc Ui Chaoimh (45,000) and Casement Park (40,000).

As the lead ground in the Six Counties, redeveloping Casement Park makes sense. Besides, the Northern Ireland Executive will, planning issues notwithstanding, provide £62.5m (€84.2m).

The real puzzle concerns why it's deemed necessary to have a 45,000-capacity stadium costing €70 million in Cork.


How often will it come close to being full? Maybe twice in some years, once in others, not at all if the Munster championship cycle doesn't fall Cork's way.

When Pairc Ui Chaoimh is completed, Munster will have four venues with a combined capacity of 174,000. Talk about excess!

It's part of the same stadium madness that has prevailed for a long time, right back to the proposed 'Bertie Bowl' and the 2001 Government grant to Croke Park, announced the night before Congress was due to vote on whether to open up the stadium to rugby and soccer.

Many felt it was a direct Government intervention, designed to influence Congress to keep Croke Park closed while other stadium plots simmered in the background.

Fourteen years later, the stadium nonsense continues.


Concussion rule could bring its own headaches

The sentiment may be sound but the application could be tricky. Tyrone, Fermanagh and the North American Board are all calling for the introduction of a 'concussion rule' in football and hurling.

They want a temporary replacement allowed for a player who takes a knock to the head so that he can be tested for concussion.

Given how topical concussion issues are in rugby, there's likely to be some support for the proposal at Congress on Saturday week, but this one needs to be very clearly thought out.

Why? Because, it would be wide open to exploitation, similar to what's happening under the 'blood rule'. It, too, was introduced with the best of intentions, designed to give team doctors time to treat cuts, without the injured party tugging impatiently to get back on the pitch so as not to leave his colleagues short-handed.

However, a failure to specify a time limit on how long a player can remain off the pitch under the blood rule, combined with fact that he can return in place of someone other than the original temporary replacement, has made a mockery of a genuinely good concept.

Even where a player has a serious injury other than a cut, he can be replaced indefinitely under the rule, if there's a tiny trickle of blood visible. In effect, it offers an opportunity to use seven subs, which was never intended.

Applying the same system for a 'concussion rule' would leave it even more open to exploitation.

After all, what's to stop a player (or his manager) using the concussion option as a tactic? Referees would have no way of knowing how genuine it was. And since they couldn't take a chance, they would have to allow the player to be properly checked.

Abuse of the blood rule shouldn't necessarily make a concussion equivalent unworkable, but the conditions attached need to be much more stringent.

Otherwise, a procession of players could be in and out of action, happily exploiting rules that were introduced as a welfare issue and not as a ruse to gain advantage.


Why is 76-day wait followed by 38-day gap?

Whether counties accept the Central Council proposal to complete the All-Ireland club championships by December from 2016 on remains to be seen but, in the meantime, here's a question waiting for a logical answer.

Not, mind you, that one is immediately apparent.

Why play the senior club semi-finals so far ahead of St Patrick's Day? Kilmallock and Ballyhale Shamrocks qualified for the hurling final 38 days before the final, while football's Corofin and Slaughtneil joined them last weekend.

One of the reasons given for completing the All-Ireland championships in December is to make it easier on the semi-finalists who, under the present system, are forced into training early in the new year.

Fair enough, but playing the semi-finals so far ahead of the finals merely adds to the load for the four winners, who face a ridiculously long wait.

Kilmallock won the Munster hurling title on November 23, leaving an 11-week wait for the All-Ireland semi-final, followed by a 38-day gap to the final. Surely there's a better way?

As for this year's finals, it's good that all four provinces will be represented. Further interest will be added by Kilmallock and Slaughtneil bidding to win the titles for the first time.

In fact, Kilmallock, captained by Graeme Mulcahy, are attempting to become the first Limerick club to win the title. Who would have thought it would have taken Limerick so long?

Read more: Aviva roar following Ireland's win over France tops Six Nations decibel test

Read more: Was it divine intervention or the Aviva floodlights? Ian Madigan posts photo on Instagram

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