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Tyrone Howe: Croke Park may yet stage more great rugby clashes

So, the curtain has finally fallen on rugby at Croke Park. While there will always be a sense of anti-climax at the way the final match ended, the big challenge is not to let the disappointment of Saturday’s loss to Scotland spoil what has been a exceptionally successful period in Irish rugby history.

Perspective is needed and despite the frustration of defeat, two (oh, how I thought I would be writing three) Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam isn’t too shabby a cameo appearance for a sports stadium.

Yet it could have been so different had common sense not prevailed. At one point the debate raged about whether the ground should be opened up to rugby and there were plenty of naysayers. Hopefully, even they will admit that the decision has been an unqualified success. The alternative — Ireland playing their home matches in Wales — now looks like a ridiculous and unthinkable prospect.

Two particular matches showed up Croke Park at its best. The first was that unforgettable game when England came to Croker for the first time. The symbolism of the day had led to enormous debate and discussion about the reception that the England team would receive.

Certain media commentators and journalists shamefully stoked the flames to such an extent that you almost got the feeling that they would be disappointed if the day went off without incident. Thank goodness it was quite the opposite — the respect afforded both to the English team and the anthems reasserted just how far Irish sport and society had come. It got even better as Ireland then went on to dish out a good old-fashioned hammering to England, 43-13.

The crowning moment came late in the game with an inch perfect cross-field kick from Ronan O’Gara. I can still recall Shane Horgan chasing down the wing, climbing into the air and catching the ball high up in front of his head, using all his former Gaelic football skill, to score a try.

It was the perfect and most fitting climax to a day in which symbolism and high quality rugby combined to contribute to the most memorable of occasions.

The second highlight was an all-Ireland affair, when Leinster and Munster faced each other in the semi-final of last season’s Heineken Cup. Leinster, as always, had real star quality, but Munster had the pedigree and track record.

The big question was whether Leinster could handle the pressure and display a real tough underbelly to overcome the intensity that Munster invariably produce. Oh how Leinster answered their perennial critics with a performance which was a perfect blend of heart and skill. It was notable for two particular players — Rocky Elsom, never has a man been so aptly named, and Johnny Sexton who emerged from the bench after an injury to Felipe Contepomi, to announce himself on the highest of European club stages.

You sensed that a star was born. The only criticism that I ever heard was that, as a supporter, you might have felt a little bit distanced from the action. Clearly the dimensions of a rugby pitch fit a long way inside that of a Gaelic playing field, but it didn’t put off a regular crowd of 80,000 people.

This is where the biggest challenge lies for Lansdowne Road. It is only right that rugby returns ‘home’, and the stadium has been transformed into an impressive superstructure. It will undoubtedly conjure up the most magical of atmospheres, but this will only be on offer to a far smaller audience.

The extra squeeze creates the danger that international rugby will become even more of a corporate event and it is crucial that clubs and real rugby supporters still have access to tickets.

Professional rugby is all about bums on seats and this extra capacity offered by rugby’s temporary host makes me doubt whether Croke Park’s services are actually at an end.

Whether tour games, a top inter-provincial match or Heineken Cup fixture, money talks and I suspect that at some stage in the future we might well see rugby back at Croke Park.

We know from great experiences in the last four years that it will not let us down.

Well done Croker and the GAA.

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