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Phil Babb
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Joined: 08 Feb 2007
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Direct Link To This Post Topic: A tough act to follow (in todays indo)
    Posted: 27 Feb 2007 at 1:44am

Rugby steals march on soccer in battle to win GAA's heart

NOW, sporting ladies and gentlemen of Ireland, follow that.

Rarely has the pulse of the nation beat so stirringly in response to rugby which, historically at least, struggles to breach the wider public consciousness. All that has changed utterly during the past fortnight.

Central to the hugely positive aura emanating from last Saturday's occasion at Croke Park - leaving aside the obvious cavil that a sound spanking of the opposition helped enormously - was the dignity shown on all sides.

The initial debt owed to the GAA - who first extended the hand of friendship by opening Croke Park - was keenly and publicly acknowledged by Brian O'Driscoll amidst the post-match celebrations and, on Sunday morning, reiterated by Eddie O'Sullivan.

A temporary little arrangement this may be, but keen observers know that a swingeing alteration of Lansdowne Road's planning permission next month may extend the IRFU's itinerancy on the northside for longer than expected.

Therefore, it is not entirely accidental that the deftly choreographed nods and winks directed towards their landlords by the blazers of the IRFU have been nothing other than impeccably diplomatic.

Already, the IRFU have been tacitly allowed to host what the GAA term "friendly" encounters for the 2008 autumn internationals - central to which is the visit of New Zealand. Significantly, any discussion on the FAI's ability to hold friendly matches - even if accommodated in Steve Staunton's least favourite month, February - remains a matter of conjecture. That is because the FAI and the GAA remain fidgety sporting bedfellows, in stark contrast to the surprisingly cordial, almost clubby, relationship between the GAA and the IRFU.

Hypocrisy

Chiefly, this is because the latter "foreign" sport was at least able to maintain the pretence of organising itself on an All-Ireland basis (we'll overlook the 'Ireland's Call' hypocrisy).

The FAI are still perceived as the garrison gang; worse, they are viewed as partitionists. And, while the IRFU are decried for smugly squatting on enormously expensive land banks around the country while Lansdowne Road was allowed to rot like Miss Havisham, the FAI wasted three major championships and have lost more homes than a bad Monopoly player.

The GAA don't mind entertaining the rugby crowd - mannerly and possessed of a monied air, they are the type of guests which swells one's ego, as much as the coffers. Remind yourself of last week's media coverage.

As for the FAI, rightly or wrongly, they are viewed as the poor relation, rattling a tin cup as they meekly pass through the large gates of Croke, a piece of rope holding their badly-stitched trousers together. The GAA see a lot of the IRFU in themselves - a shared pride in all-Ireland sporting organisation at community level, a reciprocal appreciation of financial husbandry.

Even below the level of officialdom, there is common ground. Some of the International Rules squad mingled with the Irish squad last autumn, exchanging tips on how to deal with the potentially elusive Croke Park surface. O'Sullivan sought and received the counsel of Dubs manager Paul Caffrey, another man who knows what it's like to carry the hopes of thousands on his back. Eddie O'Sullivan and Steve Staunton share a GAA background. And, er, that's where the comparison ends.

It is difficult to see how Steve Staunton might probe the inscrutable Caffrey with such ease. Or Robbie Keane chewing the fat in Cassidys with any of the Dubs crew.

While rugby has a former Pittsburgh Steelers operative who specialises in rehab, soccer has Mick Byrne, whose qualifications for a role in the Irish set-up are unclear, although he hugs people a lot and startles players awake in the morning by jumping on them, according to Damien Duff.

O'Sullivan's concise, well-measured delivery of the potential damage being caused by some of the wholly unsubstantiated media frenzy surrounding 'God Save the Queen' was an exemplary exercise in diplomacy.

As coach, O'Sullivan departed from his brief but he felt it necessary to deliver a pointed message to absolve his players from the overblown historical debate.

Staunton would struggle to fulfil such a role, regardless of his inability to construct a sentence containing more than three monosyllabic words. As the political protesters last Saturday were themselves subject to a delicious hijacking by the Shell to Sea mob, the most potent image from the flaccid rally was the ironic sight of one vulgarian sporting a British soccer jersey.

Self-immolation is the preserve of Irish soccer protests; rugby folk are content to fire off a cuttingly argued letter to the Irish Times.

The FAI did themselves no favours with their private whinging when bad timing - floodlight installation and then Dublin's gig with Tyrone - denied the senior side a first run-out in Croker.

In contrast, the rugby side have been virtually afforded the run of the place, getting their first sliver of the atmosphere a fortnight before their first competitive steps on the magnificent sward.

Stan's Clowns

But, fundamentally, it's a sport thing.

Steady Eddie's rugby team are arguably the second best team in the world; Stan's Clowns struggle to beat a ski resort.

While the admirable Paul O'Connell publicly berates himself for the mistake that cost his side a Grand Slam, Ireland's under-achieving millionaires threaten to retire in their mid-20s.

The public know what FAI head honcho John Delaney looks like - posters calling for his resignation will be paraded in Croke Park next month.

Nobody knows what his IRFU counterpart looks like. In fact, nobody knows who he is.

To sum up, does any witness of Saturday's exultant 81,611 attendance expect to experience the same adrenalin-coursing rush when the Irish soccer team greets Wales on the afternoon of March 24? Will they really care? And will the GAA embrace them as vigorously as they did the IRFU?

Didn't think so.

David Kelly

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