By Mark Jones
DUBLIN – Following repeated denials by the GAA that its Croke Park headquarters would be opened to rugby, and even soccer, the association’s policy on the use of grounds took a controversial turn last week when it emerged that its president, Sean McCague, had in fact made a series of public comments that strongly favored Croke Park as a venue for other sports.
Although GAA regulations forbid any of its grounds being used for other sports, McCague suggested in an astonishingly frank interview that change could be on the way.
"I believe at a future time the association will take the decision of saying, ‘Yes, if rugby wanted to be played at Croke Park, then that’s a possibility,’ " McCague told BBC Radio Ulster.
In one of the most radical pronouncements ever made by a leading GAA official, McCague was adamant that rugby would be ideally suited to Croke Park.
"I have absolutely no doubt that as a convenience venue, Croke Park would be much more convenient for rugby internationals and soccer internationals than moving to the outskirts of the city, [where] there isn’t the infrastructure to take it," he said.
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In another controversial offering, McCague also questioned the wisdom of the government’s decision to press ahead with the building of a national stadium in west Dublin, suggesting that Croke Park might be used as the country’s main outdoor arena for sporting events.
"Maybe there would be a policy toward building a slightly smaller stadium, maybe with a roof, something that would be useful for conferencing and for maybe 40,000 or 50,000 people, and that we could still do with the outdoor arena in Croke Park for other sports."
The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster barely 48 hours before the GAA issued its official denial that Croke Park’s doors were going to be opened to either rugby or soccer. The interview was ignored by most sections of the Irish media until last weekend, when it was reprinted in The Sunday Tribune.
When contacted by The Sunday Tribune, McCague said: "I talked about the issues in the context of a debate that hasn’t already started. It’s only a personal opinion, but if we ended up having the only 80,000 seater stadium, then rugby and soccer might want to use us," he said.
The president, a 48-year-old primary school headmaster from Monaghan who is also a former chairman of the influential Games Administration Committee, could now have put the GAA on a collision course with the Irish government because of his comments. As plans for the proposed national stadium continue, the government can ill afford anyone in a position of influence suggesting that Croke Park be used as the country’s main outdoor sporting arena.
Tantalizingly, the GAA is also strongly considering a request to the government for more money for the redevelopment of Croke Park. On completion in 2002, Croke Park will be a state-of-the-art 80,000 all-seater stadium. However, there have been indications that the project could run over the estimated figure of £150 million. Extra spending on its headquarters would deprive the GAA of funds to develop football and hurling in the rest of the country.
"It will take us another two years to complete Croke Park," McCague said in the interview, "and at that juncture I think it is for others to consider whether they want to go down the same road because we are talking exceptionally high costs when building a stadium. I don’t know at what stage the politicians might take the decision, ‘Look, there is no necessity for another stadium the same as Croke Park.’ "
However, the government is especially keen for the GAA to support its proposed national stadium. If any such stadium is to survive commercially, it will need at least six major events in any year. Rugby will provide two such events, and soccer may eventually come on board, since its own proposed stadium is unlikely to be built. That leaves the GAA to offer two big games.
The logic of, say, a Leinster football final being played at any national stadium when Croke Park lies empty is hard to fathom. McCague may have stated that he was speaking in advance of any debate, but, whether deliberately or not, he has kick-started that debate.
Even though the national stadium is not due to be completed until 2005, it seems that in the interim the question will be asked again and again: Does Dublin needs two major sporting arenas? Equally, the GAA will be faced with more important decisions regarding the issue of other sports at Croke Park. The association needs more money to complete the redevelopment of its stadium and it will have to come from somewhere.