/ 9 February 2007

‘Foreign’ rugby invading Ireland’s hallowed ground

For nearly a century, Ireland’s patriotic guardians of homegrown Gaelic games observed an inflexible rule: No British sports permitted on the hallowed ground of Croke Park.

That era ends on Sunday when Ireland and France take to the field of the sold-out, 82 300-capacity stadium for a Six Nations rugby clash.

France is being followed two weeks later by Ireland’s ancient enemy. The introduction of England at Croke Park, accompanied by the British anthem God Save the Queen, appears certain to mix past hatreds with modern passions in what remains a cathedral for Irish nationalism.

”I never believed for one moment I would see it in my lifetime,” said former Ireland flyhalf Tony Ward. ”The move to Croke Park is full of symbolism and shows a young country maturing in front of our eyes.

”The moment the band strikes up God Save the Queen before the England match will be the moment the ‘war’ is officially over.”

The decision to open Croke Park to Six Nations rugby and, next month, Ireland’s national soccer team for European Championship qualifiers involved years of bruising debate within the Gaelic Athletic Association, the dominant sports organisation of rural Ireland.

The GAA runs more than 2 000 clubs involving 350 000 players of Gaelic football and hurling. Both sports field county-based teams of unpaid amateurs that battle for the all-Ireland championships each September in Croke Park.

GAA strength is embodied in the past decade’s €260-million ($330-million) expansion of ”Croker,” on Dublin’s gritty north side, into one of Europe’s biggest and most luxurious stadiums.

But the GAA’s rule 42 — its 122-year-old ban on hosting ”foreign” games — reflected deep-seated fears that Gaelic’s status as an amateur, intensely Irish institution must be physically shielded from contact with big-money international sports. That resonates in a country where schools choose to play either Gaelic sports or rugby, not both.

Resistance to dumping rule 42 also was in keeping with Croke Park’s bloody place in the fight for independence from Britain.

On November 21 1920, police and British troops stormed Croke Park during a Dublin-Tipperary football match in a supposed search for Irish Republican Army men who, that morning, had shot to death a dozen British intelligence agents in their Dublin homes. The day’s competition was an illegal fundraiser for the families of IRA suspects imprisoned by the British.

Security-force personnel shot wildly into a fleeing crowd, killing a dozen people, including Tipperary captain Michael Hogan.

Two other fans were trampled to death on what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Today, one side of Croke Park is named after Hogan. Plaques honouring him and other Bloody Sunday dead adorn stadium entrances.

Some Irish fans have suggested adding banners that say ”Lest we forget” –a slogan normally associated with British war memorials — when England comes to town.

A 2001 GAA vote to drop the ban failed by a single ballot. The step received strong backing in 2005 following unprecedented pressure from the public and the government.

The catalyst was the pressing need to raze and redevelop Ireland’s other major stadium, 35 000-seat Lansdowne Road, which closed to rugby and soccer for redevelopment three months ago thanks to the Croke Park deal.

Had the GAA refused, Ireland’s national soccer and rugby teams would have been forced to play outside the country and the GAA would have been pilloried as backward and selfish.

Instead, the already cash-rich organisation can collect 26% of ticket sales, or more than €1,5-million ($2-million) per game, from the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Football Association of Ireland into 2008 and, probably, beyond as construction of the new 50 000-seat Lansdowne Road falls behind schedule.

”We felt an obligation to help for the good of the country. We do have a level of membership very unhappy with the decision,” said GAA president Nickey Brennan, who has tickets to the rugby and soccer matches but has mixed feelings about going.

”I’ll be a stranger in my own stadium,” he said. ”If you’d have asked me three or four years ago, I’d have said no way.”

Ireland’s rugby team — the early favourites to win the Six Nations crown versus France, England, Scotland, Wales and Italy — might feel like strangers, too.

A Gaelic pitch is 144m by 86m, while a rugby pitch measures 100m by 70m. The crowd will be more than double the usual size and much farther away from the touch lines.

But the Irish say they will play with even more passion because it’s Croke Park.

”It’s every Irish kid’s dream to play at Croke Park no matter what sporting background you’re from,” said Ireland prop Marcus Horan. ”We all had a great sense of pride just walking into the place last week, and I think that pride is going to be even greater against France.”

The French get that, too.

”We understand it is the cradle of Irish sport, the heart of Ireland in a way. A historic challenge is awaiting us at Croke Park,” said France captain Raphael Ibanez.

France fullback Clement Poitrenaud said the match would be ”in a new stadium, in a historic context, in an even more highly charged atmosphere. I hope that our performance will make it a historic sporting occasion as well.” ‒ Sapa-AP