OpinionPat Spillane

Spillane: Dublin should hit the road and the GAA should learn from the Rugby World Cup

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
Kilkenny to strut his stuff in Kilkenny?
Kilkenny to strut his stuff in Kilkenny?

It has been a hectic week, with lots of questions being thrown in my direction.

Let’s get the big questions out of the way first. 

Firstly, should Dublin play at least one championship game outside of Croke Park?  

This is a topical issue as the Leinster Council will decide on Wednesday whether Dublin’s quarter-final tie against either Wicklow or Laois will be played outside Croke Park.

On last month’s RTE’s championship draw programme I floated the idea of the Dubs undertaking one road trip during the championship.

As per usual, social media’s keyboard warriors had a field day, suggesting that this was sour grapes on my part in the wake of Kerry’s defeat by Dublin in the All-Ireland final.

I was accused of displaying my anti-Dublin agenda and the usual jibe about Kerry’s easy passage through the Munster series was trotted out – all of which are complete red herrings. 

In fairness, the overall reaction to my suggestion was positive. Of course, everybody knows why the Leinster Council fix all of Dublin’s provincial championship games in Croke Park. 

It is all about money and the fact the all the counties in the province benefit financially from the Dubs’ capacity to put bums on seats in Croke Park.

I’m well aware that it is the dream of every GAA player to perform in the association’s national stadium and no player should be denied that right.

However, there are three reasons why one of Dublin’s games in Leinster should to be played outside Croke Park.

For starters it gives the weaker counties some chance to avoid the inevitable mauling they will endure if they are forced to take on Dublin in their own back garden.

Secondly, scheduling the game in either Portlaoise or Aughrim would do wonders for the profile of Gaelic games in Laois and Wicklow at a time when interest in their county teams is probably at an all-time low.

And finally, wearing my CEDRA (Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas) hat, the influx of thousands of Dublin fans to either Portlaoise or Aughrim would provide a big boost to the struggling economies in these towns. 

By the way, I sincerely hope the Leinster Council don’t adopt the sleeveen approach and fix the game for Kilkenny’s Nowlan Park, based on the premise that there are more seats in the ground than in either of the other two venues.

I thought the Dubs fans prefer standing on Hill 16 rather than going for the plush seats in Croker! 

So my message to the Leinster Council delegates is to forget the money and take Dublin out of Croke Park.

Question number two is how can the plight of the weaker football counties be addressed?

Arguably this is one of the burning questions facing the GAA and statistics from this year’s championship make for grim reading.

One third of the games in the series were won by margins greater than 10 points. In five matches the margin was more than 20 points. 

The eight counties that played in Division 4 this spring lost 16 of the 21 championship games they were involved in. 

The back door system has failed miserably in its objective of improving the lot of weaker counties.

Take the eight counties – Longford, Offaly, Antrim, Leitrim, Carlow, Waterford, Wicklow and London – that played in Division 4 this season. 

They have played 147 qualifier games since 2001 and won just 37 – and most of those victories were achieved while playing each other.

Three counties, London, Waterford and Leitrim, have each recorded just one win in the qualifiers. This season Longford were the only county from this group to win a ‘back-door’ game.

The brutal reality is that the system isn’t working. It was interesting to note the comments made recently by Wicklow boss Johnny Magee in relation to the 18 proposals submitted to Croke Park proposing changes in the structure of the All-Ireland series.

Together with Waterford’s Tom McGlinchey (below), Magee expressed scepticism about whether the proposed changes would make any difference.

“You can trick around all you like with formats, but unless you close the gap between the resources available to the big counties and the rest, it will change nothing,” he said.

Actually I don’t go along with the resources argument. Virtually all County Boards are spending a small fortune on their senior inter-county teams with no discernible return.

There ought to be a cost benefit analysis study done before they continue to throw good money after bad.

However, I do believe a new format is urgently needed for the All-Ireland series, which it must take account of the following:

  • Weaker counties need more games.
  • All counties must have the right to compete for the Sam Maguire Cup.
  • The format must allow for the weaker counties to be pitted against the stronger teams. Weaker counties will only improve playing counties of a higher standard.
  • Following the conclusion of the round robin format counties can be regraded into subsidiary competitions, which would be football’s equivalent of the Ring, Rackard and Meagher competitions in hurling.

The finals of these new competitions would be played in Croke Park on the same bill as the major games in the All-Ireland.

Can the GAA learn from the rugby World Cup?

In short yes! The rugby World Cup was a huge success both on and off the field. TV3 got the biggest TV audience of the year for the Ireland v France match and almost

90,000 went to Wembley to see Ireland play Romania, which in sporting terms was a non-event. 

Rugby is hot at the moment. It scarcely matters that the majority of spectators who flock to the marquee matches wouldn’t know the difference between a ruck and a maul. 

So why is rugby so popular in Ireland? We’re unashamedly a nation of band wagon junkies and for some inexplicable reason rugby is the darling sport of the Irish media.

During the World Cup one national newspaper had nine different columnists writing about a single match involving Ireland. Talk about OTT.

The rugby season now lasts most of the year. The Pro-12 competition was up and running before the World Cup had finished; next up will be the Champions Cup, followed by the Six Nations and then the summer tours.

The big problem for the GAA is that we put our shop window products – the inter-county senior competitions in football and hurling – in cold storage for a minimum of four months every year. Let’s face it, only the diehards are interested in competitions like the O’Byrne Cup.

It is high-profile games live on TV which drives the popularity of any sport. It gets more people watching, it brings more people through the turnstiles and ultimately entices more youngsters to take up the game.

The GAA needs to realise this sooner rather than later because they are losing market share to rugby, even though Ireland underperformed yet again at the World Cup.