Sobering Patrick’s weekend as GAA gets caught by perfect storm
Poor weather and rugby game means fixture woe and smallest club final crowd in 24 years
Cuala’s Con O’Callaghan in action against Na Piarsaigh’s William O’Donoghue and Jerome Boylan during the All-Ireland club hurling final at Croke Park. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Not the greatest of weekends for the GAA: the curse of Siberia reasserted itself with another blast of freezing cold and snow blizzards, creating further havoc with a fixtures schedule that has already seen more inter-county matches postponed than any other year in the association’s history.
For the beleaguered CCCC, the realisation that Monday was a bank holiday appeared to offer some respite but the swift refixing of matches 24 hours later simply created more problems.
The Gaelic Players Association released a statement, outlining unhappiness amongst members with the arbitrary one-day deferral and citing the impact on players of having their bank holiday wiped out without consultation.
It was especially acute for the Galway hurlers, holed up since Saturday evening in the Mount Wolseley Hotel in Carlow and by all accounts going stir crazy the following day as they first absorbed the postponement and then waited for the five o’clock pitch inspection in Wexford Park.
It would be surprising if that wasn’t a factor in the abandonment of plans to locate a different venue for Monday. The hurling matches that did go ahead the following day were more locally convenient affairs, Offaly-Kilkenny and Limerick-Clare.
The fixtures nightmare has been a classic case of bad timing. Weather the like of which hasn’t been seen in decades has hit the GAA just as it has been trying to clear April for club activity. It also casts a poor light on the decision to retain the AHL quarter-finals, as the extra week has proved costly.
It’s not certain that the case for abandoning the new calendar has been proved beyond doubt by all of the difficulties and postponements. In the league schedules there were two free weekends set aside in football and one in hurling. The latter will presumably be supplemented by the quarter-finals weekend when the league is reviewed.
There is obviously a difficulty with a tight-structured league that even a couple of matches can throw things out of sync – never mind the widespread disruption of recent weeks. But in most other years that scheduling would be sufficient.
Compounding these vicissitudes was the need to replay the club hurling final even though few would complain about the prospect of Na Piarsaigh and Cuala being given a second opportunity to see if they can produce another epic. It’s more that on a hurling weekend with other attractions, it would have been tidier to have concluded things on St Patrick’s Day.
Croke Park last Saturday was another source of frowns for the GAA. A confluence of circumstances led to a crowd of just 15,000, well down on the modern average and the smallest since 1994 when 13,392 turned up in the old stadium for the Sarsfields-Toomevara and Nemo Rangers-Castlebar pairing.
Among the influences at the weekend were the weather, perishing to life-threatening, the presence of three city clubs, traditionally associated with smaller numbers, and maybe even that three of them had already won an All-Ireland within the previous couple of years, diminishing the novelty factor.
Most obvious though was the sheer misfortune of having the finals clash not just with a Six Nations rugby programme but the very one in which Ireland were competing with England to nail down a Grand Slam.
When St Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday there’s almost always a clash with the rugby championship but rarely one so stark that its television audience turns out to be just shy of a million.
The reaction of a good few people, admittedly not close followers of Gaelic games, was to ask simply why the GAA didn’t change dates. After all (they could have added had they been aware) didn’t an entire league programme in March 2003 get brought forward by a day so that it wouldn’t clash with the last time Ireland played England for the Grand Slam?
On one level it would have made sense but on another it would have been very disruptive for clubs who had been planning their St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park for weeks and on a bank holiday weekend.
Furthermore, although the Twickenham match had been a red-letter day from the moment the Six Nations programme was announced, the significance of the occasion was only copperfastened a week previously.
It was of course doubly unfortunate that the hurling finalists should be from such strong rugby areas as Dalkey and Limerick city, which would have impacted on the travelling support but flip the perspective and it has been a positive for the GAA that the first clubs to win an All-Ireland club hurling title in both counties are based in such locations, especially south Dublin.
As an interesting comparison and a reflection of the increasing popularity of rugby, the 2003 Grand Slam match, played on a Sunday which persuaded the GAA to move its league fixtures forward by 24 hours – on the initiative of outgoing director general Páraic Duffy, then chair of the old Games Administration Committee – attracted a television audience of not much more than half of last Saturday’s.
At 504,000, it ranked only sixth on the 2003 list of most-watched sports events, behind the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics, both All-Ireland finals, the hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Tipperary and Ireland’s Euro 2004 qualifier against Georgia.
It has always been general GAA policy to roll with the punches when Ireland are involved in major international sports competitions, avoid needless clashes and get on with their own fixtures – which of course they would have been more than happy to do last weekend had circumstances not proved so uncooperative.