IRFU'S crown jewel a real asset


There has been scarcely concealed mirth over the IRFU's quandary in light of the Government's climbdown on the proposed National Stadium, especially when set against the state-of-the-art stadium that is Croke Park. Some of the gleefully smug reaction from one or two GAA pundits barely stopped short of going: "Na, na, na-naa-na." Hopefully they don't reflect a widespread feeling within their sports (certainly not if Seán Moran and other more fair-minded Gaelic games pundits are anything to go by) and

Good luck to them. Went there for the All-Ireland hurling final. Snuck into the Premium Level afterwards - it is spacious and comfortable. The GAA have attended to every detail. There's clearly a huge match-day staff on duty and the whole experience compares more than favourably to, say, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff or Twickenham.

It's hard not to imagine wistfully Croke Park one day hosting rugby and maybe even soccer. But, of course, no one has any right to be so presumptuous, and certainly the IRFU aren't. Rule 42 is, quite rightly, a decision for GAA Congress and no amount of carrot-dangling or bullying (the Government seem to oscillate between the two) can alter that, even if two grants of tax-payers' money of €85 million went towards it.

Besides, can one ground, even Croke Park in all its magnificence, satisfy the needs of Gaelic games, rugby and football in the hypothetical circumstances of it being made available to the other sports with Lansdowne Road perhaps, or perhaps not, redeveloped to back it up in some way? There seems to be an awful lot of obstacles to that one which some people haven't fully thought out, not least the PDs, who give the distinct impression of having no interest in sport, failing utterly to recognise the sensitivities within the GAA and what a powerful tool sport can be towards a nation's health and well-being.

Aside from Rule 42, there are the apparent logistical difficulties of simply using Croke Park, vis-à-vis the local residents, whenever it is desirable to do so, judging by the negotiations on the Dublin-Donegal senior football All-Ireland quarter-final replay. Secondly, and most obviously, there is the lack of floodlights at Croke Park, a major disadvantage toward the stadium ever becoming even a quasi-National Stadium.

THERE would assuredly also be demands for what are called "clean" stadiums which, one imagines, might bring about a whole host of legal and contractual difficulties for both the GAA and the IRFU were a marriage of convenience ever to materialise. But most of all, from the IRFU's perspective, temporary use or otherwise of Croke Park could not provide security of tenure. That is what made the proposed Abbotstown project so attractive. The union can hardly be blamed for rowing in with what seemed like such a golden goose. What the IRFU and the FAI need is security of tenure and the long-term income that comes with having their own ground as opposed to being tenants.

It wouldn't be unfair to say the IRFU have been the least pro-active of the three major sporting associations when it came to developing a new or improved home of their own. At least in having the enthusiasm and drive to press for the flawed Eircom Park project, the FAI wangled a promised €45 million out of the Government which is now "non-negotiable", according to FAI treasurer John Delaney.

The IRFU merely received "promises and assurances" in return for "promises and assurances". Show me the money? Save for a €3.5 ... million grant toward the development of underage rugby, the IRFU weren't pro-active enough, or didn't barter enough for any more.

But to say they've done nothing when compared to the GAA is missing the point, aside from overlooking the refurbishment of Thomond Park as well as floodlighting there and at Musgrave Park, Donnybrook and Ravenhill. Were they offered up to €127 million of tax-payers' money they'd be able to do quite a lot. Besides, one isn't comparing like with like. The IRFU, like the FAI, have to compete in a professional world, not in a national amateur sport.

Moreover, rugby punches its weight in terms of its contribution to the economy. It wouldn't be a wild estimate to say international matches at Lansdowne Road generate up to €60 million per year, over half of which would be foreign money.

However, in the current economic climate it doesn't look like the Government will be in a position to acknowledge that in any way for at least another two or three years - if ever. Who knows, private funding might yet materialise, and there are templates for this, such as the Madjeski Stadium in Reading, the St Mary's Stadium in Southampton, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Boston, and the PacBell Stadium in San Francisco, where the sporting bodies are anchor tenants. In the latter example, $100 million of the $255 million was raised by the naming rights.

It's a long shot, and in any case the IRFU will be mindful of not mortgaging off their future. They need look no further for an ominous portent than Cardiff. Even with an estimated £61-£62 ... million of lottery funding towards the £126 million Millennium Stadium, the Welsh RFU still owes £50 million. The debt hangs over Welsh rugby. The clubs are in financial ruin but the Welsh union has to pay every last cent it has towards servicing the Millennium Stadium debt.

Nor are the IRFU flush with funds. Their 90-acre site at Newlands Cross is a designated green belt between Tallaght and Clondalkin, and as such wouldn't fetch much more than the €5.7 million they paid for it.

Whisper it quietly, and it would surely be a last resort, but Lansdowne Road is their crown jewel. It might more easily be rezoned given local residents could say goodbye to sports events and concerts. In which scenario the ground might be worth anything in the region of €60-€70 million.

Not that it has come to that yet. Not yet.