Rugby’s rising not a bad thing

So this year’s All Ireland final is going to take place on May 19, two weeks before Leitrim even take to the field against London in Ruislip.

So this year’s All Ireland final is going to take place on May 19, two weeks before Leitrim even take to the field against London in Ruislip.

Coincidently, this huge event is also taking place in London, and even though it’s the Heinekin Cup final between the Irish provincial rugby sides Leinster and Ulster I can guarantee you there will be a number of Leitrim people in attendance. That is the scope and draw rugby has achieved in this country over the past ten years. The final is going to be one of the sporting events of the summer in this country, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s not a bad thing. Anything that raises the bar of Irish sport – any sport – is to be welcomed. But lets take a look at how Irish club rugby got to this point and what is means to the likes of the GAA.

In 1999, Ulster became the first Irish team to win what was then a relatively new competition on the European rugby stage. However, it has quickly become one of Europe’s biggest and best sporting competitions. There are a number of reasons for this. Just look at the attendances in the finals over the years and see how it has grown exponentially. In the first Heinekin Cup final in 1996 Toulouse and Cardiff attracted just 21,800 despite the fact that game was played in Cardiff’s backyard in the Cardiff Arms Park.

Imagine the Dubs attracting a crowd that small for a National League final, let alone the All Ireland final. The end of the Association as we know it would have been predicted. Fast-forward 15 years to that epic final between Leinster and Northampton Saints last year in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. The attendance was 72,456.

The money available from sponsorship and international television rights are key to explaining the enormous profile the competition now generates in the media and in the public mindset. That money filters its way down through the IRFU into the four provincial teams, enabling them to expand not only their fan-bases but also the infrastructures of clubs across the island of Ireland. Carrick-on-Shannon Rugby Club is a key example.

The club has grown enormously over the past few years bringing with it a new breed of rugby follower to the county’s capital town. These supporters think nothing of adhering themselves to (traditionally) either Leinster or Munster and regularly travel to support these sides in Dublin, Limerick and beyond.

Why? Because the games have been sold as a great occasion and a guaranteed ‘experience’. To me, their allegiance makes much more sense than trying to understand the thousands of people who continually travel to the UK to support teams in the Premiership or the Scottish league. (I watched Rangers play Hearts two weeks ago as I was in Edinburgh, and believe me, Sligo Rovers would have been a match for either of them.)

But looking beyond the marketing and media exposure and the growth of the game in non-traditional areas of Ireland, an old adage goes a long way to explaining why we’ve all gone rugby mad in Ireland: ‘Success breeds success.’ Simple as that. At club level Munster and Leinster have experienced unrivalled success in Europe over the past ten years. (It would be remiss not to mention Connacht’s recent progress, too, and I’m delighted that the ‘All Ireland’ final in Twickenham next month means Eric Elwood and Tim Allnutt’s men will get to compete in the top-tier competition again next year.) Including this year’s final, nine Irish sides will have appeared in finals since Ulster’s ground-breaking win in 1999. Couple this provincial success with the international side’s golden era of the last decade culminating in their first Grand Slam win in 61 years in 2009 and it’s easy to see why rugby is on such a high in this country.

So what does this mean to the GAA? Not as much as people would like to think. It’s like comparing apples and oranges to a large degree. Yes, the Association has a big task in competing with the IRFU in terms of marketing its games, not to mention the added competition of this summer’s European Championships.

But we must at all times remember the GAA is an amateur association that continually competes on a par with two of the world’s most popular and financially robust sports. While it is important we learn from how things are done by other international sports governing bodies, the key to the success of the GAA is pushing our unique selling points rather than trying to emulate what others are doing. At the end of the day almost every country has soccer and rugby; as the old chant goes: ‘There’s only one GAA.’