Column: GAA Changes Tide To Rugby

It doesn’t seem like long ago when the Irish rugby team made me turn off the TV. The GAA and the Irish soccer team held my sporting eye.

Then again, that was quite a while ago. My secondary school days were spent in Dublin’s St.Fintan’s High School Sutton, some three miles from Howth.

Every year the school held a sponsored walk, over the hill of the Howth, down through Howth village and back to the school. A number of us ran the course, with the aim of getting home on a half-day. Most of us failed to get up the hill.

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My alma matter’s sports history was really incredible. Four all-Ireland basketball championships in a row, a Leinster schools soccer championship. Badminton titles and even a Walker Cup player.

There were the odd Dublin Gaelic football championships, but to be fair it was in real terms a basketball and soccer school.

Some six years after I left, I passed the school one lunch time on my way to the local post office and I was left stunned, as every young man I saw in the St.Fintan’s jumper held a rugby ball.

You see the year before I joined (in the 90’s), the local rugby club Suttonian’s approached the school offering full rugby services and coaching. The then principal slapped down this idea, the school focused on too many sports!

However like everything, change arrives. The new principal who took position when I was in fifth year happily accommodated rugby in the school, throwing open the doors 12 months after I sat my leaving cert.

Within six years of leaving St.Fintan’s, a sport that I knew of only two people playing from my year and the year below, had embraced the school.

Within 15 years of kicking their first rugby ball, the school is now competing in the Leinster senior schools cup. A huge achievement in a short number of years, especially considering this sport is dominated by private south Dublin schools.

While this sounds like a romantic story, I’m afraid it isn’t. Its roots lie in the IRFU’s decision in the early 90’s to spread the game and enter school’s that were outside their traditional base.

Suttonain’s were then and are now one of the big junior clubs in the country, Including playing All-Ireland level for over 10-years.

St.Fintan’s GAA and soccer pitch and Suttonian’s RFC are separated by an 8ft high 3in wide wall. It’s remarkable that Fintan’s up until the turn of the century were not a rugby school.

My memories of the Irish rugby team during my school days is constant defeat. Every year saw new hope and optimism come January and the five nations. The majority saw us handed the wooden spoon after another last quarter collapse to France, England, Wales or Scotland or even all of them.

On the Joe Finnegan Show, Joe highlighted how every boy and girl in Ireland will want a rugby ball for Christmas, after Ireland beat the All-Blacks in their all-conquering year.

Joe is probably right, like the early 90’s were the Irish soccer team were king, this time it’s the rugby brigade.

My other memory of my school days is the GAA’s fear of soccer and how the FAI would take over.

Seven years ago Dublin GAA published a paper highlighting the threat that Leinster rugby and rugby in general is posing.

As the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, the GAA should get very scared of the garrison game, having seen off the FAI.

This time the battle is different. While the GAA engaged in direct marketing through the 00’s, something that A.League of Ireland weren’t rich enough to do and B.Rugby just wasn’t big enough to impose, this time around, rugby
holds many aces.

The sport itself is in a much stronger place, not just at international level but at grass roots including, Leinster’s 12-counties of rugby drive.

What the GAA has on any other sport is representing your county. Something soccer cannot hold a light to. There just isn’t the same community engagement for the local lad togging out for Sligo Rovers against Shelbourne as to Leitrim versus New York.

Rugby though, made a bold and intelligent move in 1994, when the sport went professional, they chose provinces rather than clubs.

From Wexford Town to Longford Town via Carlow and out to Navan, the blue and gold Leinster jersey adorns those towns.

Similar from Roscommon town to Carrick-on-Shannon sit those green Connacht jerseys and in Monaghan so many boys want to be Tommy Bowe.

Identity belongs to us all and we can all relate to one of the four proud provinces.

Professionalism

So you have a choice, play for Roscommon or play for Athlone Town. If you chose Athlone Town, you might go onto play for Dundalk, then maybe get a move to England and make the Irish soccer team.

If you pick Roscommon, well the whole county will know you.

Let’s look at playing rugby for Connacht or football for Roscommon. Again the whole of Roscommon will know you.

If you pick Connacht, well, it’s a full-time job, including VHI benefit, you’ll be on TG4 or Eir Sport every week and play European rugby in the Heinken Cup or challenge cup and if you do it right you’ll catch Joe Schmidt’s or Andy Farrell’s eye and it’s the six nations and World cup for you.

This time the battle is very different. Attendances have fallen at GAA matches, their toying with the rules as the GAA try and win back the crowd.

This time their opponent is ready and their opponent is organised from grass roots to top branch. Their opponent offers money and stardom.

This time the GAA should be right to get scared, because this time the rugby are at Howth head.