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Lurgan clubs aiming for 'freedom' of sporting choice after Ulster Rugby and Armagh GAA join forces

Listen to more from Friday's event on this week's Ulster Rugby Round-Up podcast, out on Thursday

The Armagh GAA and Ulster Rugby squads came together at Lurgan RFC's Pollock Park on Friday.
The Armagh GAA and Ulster Rugby squads came together at Lurgan RFC's Pollock Park on Friday.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

"It doesn't matter what community you come from," says Armagh GAA captain Rory Grugan.

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It didn't matter on Friday evening whether you were from north or south Lurgan; having the likes of Grugan and Stefan Campbell strutting their stuff alongside Ulster Rugby's Craig Gilroy and Jacob Stockdale was enough to raise a smile.

It happened at Pollock Park as Lurgan RFC brought together the two squads to prove that, while there might be two sporting codes, they form merely two parts of the same community.

Lurgan has, traditionally, been divided more or less down the middle. Go north of the town centre and you're in a traditionally nationalist part of the world, south and you're in a traditionally unionist-thinking area.

Two people of similar age can grow up in the same town and have totally different life experiences; often with paths that never cross.

When Armagh forward Campbell and Ireland winger Stockdale were taking their first steps to stardom, for example, access to each other's sporting arena would have been fairly limited.

It's exactly that separation that the local clubs are now trying to address.

"Some people will know the history of Lurgan and the divide that has always been between Protestants and Catholics," explains Lurgan RFC captain Lee Allen, who played in the 'Game of Two Halves' alongside players from St Peter's GAA, St Paul's GAA, Eire Og and Clan na Gael, his own team-mates and world star Stockdale.

"It's one of the things that this club has recognised, as well as many other clubs across rugby and gaelic. We're trying to build connections between players and break down that divide.

"Friday's event felt massive. To see Armagh GAA in the middle of Mourneview, a predominantly Protestant area, and to see people from both sides of the community comfortable to be there and mix with one another was amazing.

"Over the last number of months, the Lurgan rugby club lads have been training with the gaelic guys and vice versa. It's been amazing to see those relationships growing through sport.

"We want the gaelic guys to feel comfortable coming up here and playing for a rugby team and vice versa, the rugby boys to play for a gaelic team. We want there to be a freedom in doing that."

That access was opened up on Friday evening as aspiring young Lurgan sports stars were given their own chance to try each other's sports while watching those at the top do likewise with, admittedly, limited success for either the Armagh GAA and Ulster Rugby players.

"It doesn't matter what community you come from, when you see somebody like Jacob Stockdale or Stefan Campbell from your area, it's something that you aspire to be," said Armagh captain Rory Grugan

I'm surprised we haven't done something like this sooner and I hope it continues next season Craig Gilroy

"The good thing about sport is that it brings people together, no matter what background they're from. There have been some really good examples in Irish sport over the last couple of months even, if you look at Shane Lowry and how he brought people together (when winning golf's Open Championship).

"It really is the best way I think. It's not always easy to cross those lines of communication so it's really good to have people doing this kind of thing to make those steps. In this day and age, that's the way it should be.

"It's a brilliant initiative with two very forward-thinking communities  coming together. How much sport can bring people together is brilliant and it's great for us to be a part of it."

While there were plenty of young hands and feet there to get used to the feel of a different shaped ball, so, too, were there interested eyes just happy to watch it all unfold.

"Hopefully we can inspire the next generation and maybe even people coming here who have never been to a rugby match see us training and want to come to the games. It's the same with the gaelic guys too," said Ulster's Craig Gilroy, who grew up playing GAA in Holywood.

"It's really positive, it's a good atmosphere. I'm surprised we haven't done something like this sooner and I hope it continues next season."

The event is the latest to form part of Lurgan's 'Building positive relations through sport' project, given funding by EU Peace IV programme.

If it unlocks doors as well as those involved are hoping, perhaps Lurgan's next crop of sporting stars will be a little bit better with the ball of less familiar shape.

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