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Grounds for helping rugby

By Joe Kernan

There are some people throughout the globe who will always be remembered for either making or instigating momentous decisions.

A small, dapper Kerry man joined those ranks on Saturday April 16, 2005. For some time before that, Sean Kelly’s ambition had been to see the GAA reach out the hand of friendship to other sports in the most practical way possible.

And when, at around 5pm on that red-letter day the vote was taken at Congress on whether or not Croke Park should be thrown open to international rugby and soccer, with the Aviva Stadium a mere pipe-dream, even the ebullient, optimistic Kelly was astonished at the resounding margin of the ‘yes’ vote.

The 227 to 97 return underlined a strong endorsement for the GAA to take a completely new route in terms of establishing a closer rapport with other sports.

Since then, of course, the Association has not only facilitated some of the best rugby and soccer games seen on this island for many years but it has also gained considerable credibility far beyond these shores.

Kelly’s commitment, energy and absolute devotion to seeing his dream become a reality indeed proved a seminal milestone in the history of the Association.

Who would have thought that, within a relatively short period of time, the Queen would be a VIP guest at Croke Park, high-profile DUP politicians would be in attendance at GAA matches and both gaelic football and hurling would be on the sporting curriculum of non-Catholic schools?

It is perhaps appropriate that an Ulster voice, that of Fermanagh businessman Peter Quinn, was among the most strident and authoritative in initiating the planning and strategy for the new-look Croke Park.

And it’s in Ulster that some of the real fruits of the decision made through Sean Kelly’s perseverance and fortitude are being seen.

Sport NI and the Stormont Executive are currently providing huge sums for capital projects — funding that would have been deemed improbable not many years ago.

Only this week, Martin McGuinness was at Windsor Park to see Linfield host Derry City in the Setanta Cup and I was delighted to learn he was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome accorded to him there.

Just as I like to think, that Peter Robinson was impressed with the red-carpet treatment he received when he attended the recent Power NI Dr McKenna Cup final between Derry and Tyrone at the Morgan Athletic Grounds in Armagh.

With £61.4m having been made available for the re-building of Casement Park, the Morgan Athletic Grounds are now among the finest stadia in the country and further refurbishment planned for St Tiernach’s Park, Clones, Ulster is certainly not resting on its laurels.

And, while I am aware that Club Tyrone and the county board there are less than impressed by the grants they have received from government sources for their new Centre of Excellence at Garvaghey, I would hope more cash may be made available for this project.

Indeed, with the new-look Casement Park due to open in 2015, by which stage Clones and other grounds in the province will have been further upgraded, the GAA could play a part in bolstering Ireland’s bid to host the Rugby World Cup at some stage in the future.

Croke Park, the Aviva Stadium, Casement Park, Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Thomond Park are five venues at which major matches could be staged with some other GAA grounds perhaps being made available for perceived lesser fixtures.

I believe that with the co-operation of the GAA, staging the World Cup in this part of the world would not be the impossibility that some people perceive it to be.

It is essential that there is a greater understanding between the various sports here in Ireland — the benefits of the enhanced relationships have been clearly seen to date.

I am very much aware that it would take another Congress vote to determine whether grounds could be used for rugby because the overturning of Rule 42 seven years ago related only to the use of Croke Park.

It would now be up to county board delegates to convene and decide if there is a desire to see Rule 42 removed forever.

Given the enormous popularity that rugby is currently enjoying in this country, I have no doubt that many, many people within the GAA fraternity would enjoy seeing what is Ireland’s leading sporting organisation play a part in helping to stage one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

Should the competition come to Ireland, the staging of matches would generate millions of euros and pounds sterling of revenue for the hard-pressed economy.

Is there another Sean Kelly out there, I wonder?

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