Sunday 21 January 2018

Irish rugby team 'priviledged' to call Croke Park home

Ireland's players and management have united in expressing their regret that Saturday will be their last appearance at Croke Park - and a glance at their record at the ground explains why.

Their four-year tenancy at GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) headquarters while Lansdowne Road has been rebuilt has coincided with the most successful period in the nation's rugby history.

Should they prevail against Scotland in the RBS 6 Nations this weekend, they will have won a Grand Slam and three Triple Crowns during their residency.

Their overall figures will read played 14, won 10 - a victory tally that include victories over England, France and world champions South Africa - drawn one, lost three.

Such success is bound to create happy memories, but their reluctance to depart the cathedral of Gaelic sport extends beyond silverware alone.

As Brian O'Driscoll states, Croke Park represents more than a playing field to the Irish nation. Instead, it offers a cultural and historical context that cane be claimed by few other grounds.

"We feel extremely privileged to have been allowed onto the hallowed soil of the GAA," said O'Driscoll.

"I grew up playing a lot of Gaelic football in my youth. Every Irish person is aware of their heritage and the GAA is part of that.

"It's been an absolute honour to have played there for the last four years."

The atmosphere has become more subdued over the last two seasons, perhaps because supporters have grown accustomed to victory during the golden age of Irish rugby.

Maybe a quieter breed of fan attends internationals, as the Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Leinster last year was hardly short of noise.

But there was nothing restrained about that first season there in 2007, kicked off with a heart-rending loss to France that ultimately denied Ireland the Grand Slam.

The disappointment of defeat was soon forgotten, however, as they produced one of the greatest moments in the nation's sporting history.

England's first visit to Croke Park was shrouded in tension with the ground steeped in history from the conflict between the two countries.

It provided the setting for 'Bloody Sunday' in 1920 when 14 civilians were killed by British soldiers.

To add to the significance, Hill 16, the stadium's only terrace, was built from the rubble of O'Connell Street after it had been bombed by the British during the Easter Rising.

Debate raged over what reception 'God Save the Queen' would receive, but England's anthem passed without incident.

Instead, Ireland celebrated a highly-symbolic moment amid an electric atmosphere with a 43-13 rout that even visiting fans admitted was entirely in keeping with the occasion.

Any lingering opposition to the temporary relaxing of Rule 42, which forbade 'foreign' sports considered to be in competition with their Gaelic rivals, evaporated in the aftermath.

Now the years of intense opposition to opening the gates to rugby and football are a distant memory thanks to an agreement that has proved highly lucrative for the GAA.

On the pitch Ireland have swept nearly all before them with last year the most prolific of all, featuring wins against England, France and South Africa and a draw with Australia.

But lock Paul O'Connell, who led the side in their first appearance at Croke Park because of an injury to O'Driscoll, insists that 2007 thumping of England was the highlight.

"We were very aware of the history and tradition on Croke Park and how difficult it had been to get to play there," he said.

"We were very grateful to the GAA to be allowed to play there, conscious to represent the game well there and to do well there.

"I think we have and hopefully we can finish well there at the weekend.

"The big memory would be the first English game there, particularly after the French defeat.

"The anthems were incredible - very, very emotional for everyone involved. That would be the big standout moment."

The problem now facing the Irish Rugby Football Union is their return to Lansdowne Road will see attendance figures drop from 83,000 to 50,000.

Italy was the only regular fixture they struggled to sell out at Croke Park and they are now facing a considerable drop in revenue from the reduced capacity at the Aviva Stadium.

But contractually it is impossible for them to return to Croke Park for the bigger games, forcing them to reminisce on an agreement that worked on every front for all parties.

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