Monday 20 November 2017

If rugby and GAA combine, 2023 could be a very special year for Ireland - Alan Quinlan

After seeing England hold the competition I’m more convinced than ever that we are the best candidate

27 September 2015; Supporters take part in a 'Mexican Wave' during the game. 2015 Rugby World Cup, Pool D, Ireland v Romania, Wembley Stadium, Wembley, London, England. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
27 September 2015; Supporters take part in a 'Mexican Wave' during the game. 2015 Rugby World Cup, Pool D, Ireland v Romania, Wembley Stadium, Wembley, London, England. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Alan Quinlan

I know that the IRFU have been carefully planning their bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023, and after witnessing how the competition was such a success in England I'm more convinced than ever that we could make it an event to remember on our shores.

I've been to the last five World Cups as a player and most recently in my new career as a journalist. I think Ireland could blend the best parts of the last two competitions in New Zealand (2011) and the UK to convince World Rugby that they are the best candidate.

There are plenty of strands to this argument, be it financial, infrastructural or political issues, but if the Irish bid is a success, imagine the excitement it would bring right across the island.

In the past we've seen some major sporting events held here in Ireland and they have been enormous successes.

The Special Olympics in 2003 was an incredible festival of sport that brought volunteers from every corner of the country together to make it the best ever event of its kind.

Three years later the Ryder Cup at The K Club surpassed all expectations and set a new standard for the hosting of the tournament, which in my opinion, still has to be beaten.

Irish fans Jodie McGinley, Pauleen Cox, Aisling Fraher and Laura Marie Fennell were in Cardiff for Ireland’s defeat to Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final
Irish fans Jodie McGinley, Pauleen Cox, Aisling Fraher and Laura Marie Fennell were in Cardiff for Ireland’s defeat to Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final

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But these two examples are tiny in comparison to the scale of a World Cup bid. The whole country would be gripped by rugby fever for the six weeks of the tournament, and the build-up would start six years out, once the decision is made.

The volunteer force was outstanding in England. They obviously had the know-how to rally the troops after hosting the Olympics, and it was those thousands of blue-clad folk that made the tournament special.

They greeted you with a smile and always helped you along your way. We could do something similar here through the rugby clubs in the country, which are already run by an army of volunteers.

The stadiums that played host to the games in this year's competition were top class, and that is probably the biggest area that any Irish bid would have to work on. We already have the big stadiums to match anything that England or New Zealand have to offer, but it is the other smaller venues that would need a bit of work.

The link-up with the GAA is a huge positive for the Irish bid - without them there is no way it would be possible to even think about applying - but some of the possible venues will need to be refurbished.

The IRFU has announced their ticketing package for the 2016 Six Nations with prices starting from as little as €15 for the home games against Wales, Scotland and Italy.
The IRFU has announced their ticketing package for the 2016 Six Nations with prices starting from as little as €15 for the home games against Wales, Scotland and Italy.

But ground capacity is not the main issue. For example, Palmerston North, with a capacity of 15,000, hosted three games in 2011, while Exeter's Sandy Park (12,300) held three games this time round. Venues like Celtic Park in Derry, Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney or Pearse Stadium in Galway are well capable of hosting bigger crowds than that.

But then we have the vast numbers of the press that descend on these events. Several of the bigger venues in England had to designate more seating than usual to accommodate journalists. Now I haven't been in many GAA press boxes, but I'm sure some work would be required to get them up to the standard required.

Even in an enormous city like London, rugby fans were left high and dry on a few occasions when the public transport network let them down. Frequently after matches there was a big scramble back to get the last tube into the city and even if you got on it, they were often subject to delays.

All the knock-out games would probably be held in Dublin, and similar park and ride plans to those used for big concerts and All-Ireland finals would work perfectly. When a game is a big enough event in a city, it is easier to plan around it.

The Irish players have continuously spoken about the importance of the vocal support
The Irish players have continuously spoken about the importance of the vocal support

And with the smaller games likely to take place in the provincial venues, we won't even need the big transport plans to cope with these games. They're well used to managing big GAA matches where thousands of cars are funnelled in one or two roads and out again.

I see Ireland's geography as being the big plus when it comes to transport issues. We are such a small country that you can drive from one side of it to the other in less than two hours now. Even if you had to go from Cork to Belfast after a game it's not a huge event.

Both teams and their supporters could base themselves in a particular area and drive to and from the match venue. From an organisational point of view that would be manna from heaven for a team manager.

As we saw in the last month or two, Irish people are not shy in attending big sporting events in huge numbers.

It was incredible to see how they took over places like Wembley, the Millennium Stadium and the Olympic Stadium. England and Wales were awash with green.

But a big issue going forward will be the pricing of match tickets and accommodation. It was pretty rotten to see the genuine fans being fleeced for hotel rooms after they had already paid £250 for a match ticket. For the France weekend in Cardiff, I heard of someone who was charged £1,000 for a hotel room. That cannot happen here like it has in the past for big events. I'm not sure how it can be policed, but maybe the organising committee can come to some arrangement with the Irish Hotels Federation. It'd be a shame to see that black mark on us if we are successful.

Obviously for World Rugby and the IRFU, revenue is a huge deciding factor for their tournaments, and with the RFU and World Rugby believed to have generated a combined £95million surplus there is scope to cut the ticket prices for 2023.

I'd love to see rugby supporters and potential fans of the future be given a chance to go along. Already the governments north and south of the border have pledged their support which means the bid is possible, so there is no reason that a profitable, affordable tournament could not be organised.

But with any big sporting event, it is the legacy that is left behind that's the most important thing. If the work was put in to improving the facilities around the country it has the potential to transform the face of sport in the country.

It could help any future FAI bids for hosting the European Championships, while the long-term benefits to the GAA would be significant too.

And I see the lift it would give to grassroots rugby as the number one reason we need this bid to be a success.

We'd have kids in Kerry, Sligo and Wexford talking about rugby, playing the game, and getting to see the game's superstars up close and personal.

The effects a successful bid could have for the game in Ireland are enormous.

Since South Africa in 1995, we have never had a Rugby World Cup that's made that sort of cultural impact. The French were hardly moved by the 2007 event; the Kiwis couldn't possible love the game more; and the English are a massive traditional force in the game anyway.

Of late, we've heard arguments about where the game is played here, and if rugby is a sport for the elite, but hosting the Rugby World Cup could change that forever.

I grew up in the heart of Tipperary and I wanted to play hurling for my county, but I ended up being a rugby player.

Playing two sports didn't do me any harm. Being successful in our Rugby World Cup bid can only be a great thing for Irish sport in general.

Irish Independent

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