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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 12:13 GMT
Croke Park gears up for rugby first
By James Helm
BBC News, Dublin

Close to the centre of Dublin, Croke Park's giant steel and concrete frame towers above surrounding streets.

Croke Park
Croke Park is expected to fill its 82,000 capacity this weekend

This spectacular sporting venue has traditionally played host to the dramas, skills and emotions of the Gaelic games, hurling and Gaelic football. Now new tenants are about to move in.

It may be little known beyond Ireland, apart from among the Irish diaspora, but this is one of Europe's finest sporting homes.

With a capacity of 82,000 and state-of-the-art facilities, it is a tribute to the people whose labours have built it, and to the passions and fervour which surround Gaelic football and hurling here.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, is a local resident and an avid sports fan.

He's been coming to "Croker", as it's fondly known, since long before he took office, and says this is a "huge moment".

Great atmosphere

He told me: "It's good for sport, it's good for the country, and it's good for the image of the country. I think when people in so many countries will see the facility they will be pleasantly surprised at the standards of Croke Park today."

And he looked forward to "the buzz that it will create in the north city, bringing new life, new crowds, new sport".

It's a magnificent stadium, far superior to dilapidated Lansdowne Road, south of the River Liffey.

Bertie Ahern
It's good for sport, it's good for the country, and it's good for the image of the country.
Bertie Ahern

With a full house, there will be a great atmosphere for the rugby matches against France this weekend, and then the much-awaited clash with England later this month. The first soccer match is against Wales next month.

The games have been anticipated for a long time, and even with a much larger stadium capacity, tickets are hard to find. As sporting venues around the world go, Croke Park's history is rich and unique, and helps show why it has, for a long time, held such a special place in the Irish psyche. Before and after Irish independence from British rule, the Gaelic games were celebrated as symbols of Irish identity and difference.

Soccer and rugby, by comparison, were long referred to as "foreign games". At Croke Park in 1920, British forces entered the stadium and fired into the crowd. Altogether, 14 people died, including spectators and players. The Hogan Stand is named after one of the players killed that day, and the bitter memories of "Bloody Sunday" have lived on.

Gaelic football and hurling are played by amateurs, whereas rugby union and soccer are played by professionals. The Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, is their governing body, a powerful force, with around 750,000 members at more than 2,000 clubs in cities, towns and villages right across Ireland.

Gaelic centrepiece

In 2005, the GAA voted to lift the rule which used to keep out the other sports, offering soccer and rugby a temporary home while Lansdowne Road is rebuilt. Before the vote, there was much debate.

Some argued that "Croker" should remain exclusively for the Gaelic games, citing its unique history, and stressing that soccer and rugby were, in many ways, competing with hurling and Gaelic football for the leisure time of young people in Ireland.

Croke Park stadium
Croke Park stadium holds a special place in the Irish psyche

Supporters of the switch argued that Croke Park should be shown off to the world as a symbol of how Ireland's top two, home-grown, sports are thriving and vibrant.

DJ Carey is a legendary hurling player, widely viewed as the finest of his generation. He retired last year, but has much experience of playing at Croke Park on the biggest occasions. He favoured Croke Park being opened up, and is looking forward to the first game: "It's going to be absolutely phenomenal.

"The Irish rugby team are used to running out to 35 to 40,000 people at Lansdowne Road. That's going to be doubled for the French and English games, so it's going to be absolutely terrific."

Dreams

A mile or two across Dublin, crowds of boys and girls are out training at St Vincent's GAA Club on a chilly Thursday evening. The girls are playing camogie, the female version of hurling, and their coach is Tom Humphries, Ireland's best known sports writer, a columnist on the Irish Times.

As someone who loves the Gaelic games, he explained the emotions involved in the run-up to the Ireland-France match on Sunday: "This rural-based, volunteer-oriented association still fills the dreams of a majority of the kids here.

The numbers are still coming, and they won't make a penny out of it in their careers, but they want to play in Croke Park - that's their dream.

That's why there will be a lot of mixed feelings when Croke Park opens up, because it has been special for kids who grow up with this kind of sense of place and sense of culture that the games of hurling and football give them."


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