Nine people remember the day when Croke Park's gates opened to rugby

Those who were involved in the decision and the game itself remember a historic day...

February 11, 2007: French out-half David Skrela kicks off the first rugby international held at Croke Park.
February 11, 2007: French out-half David Skrela kicks off the first rugby international held at Croke Park.

Nickey Brennan (GAA president 2006-09)

The debate to open Croke Park took place on the same day of my election in 2005. It was the first time a presidential election took place in Croke Park. It was a surreal occasion for me because the debate obviously generated significant headlines but I had the not too inconsiderable challenge of being elected president. There was a direct relationship between the two. I felt Croke Park should have been opened and that held sway with a good-sized part of the country.

The discussion on it, I remember, went on for an inordinate amount of time by which time the voting between Christy Cooney and myself had taken place. The result was ready to be delivered to Seán Kelly but the debate continued. I was on the top table and, being selfish about it, at that stage they could have done anything to Croke Park for all I cared. But it was a good day for the association. I worked with Croke Park, the IRFU, and the FAI in terms of logistics and one of the things I insisted on was producing a booklet so that those coming to Croke Park for the first time would discover what the GAA was about and how this amateur, indigenous sport had come to establish such a stadium. I felt it was an opportunity to sell the GAA. I would have spoken to a lot of international news agencies before the France and England games.

The France game was disappointing from a result point of view. The England game obviously dwarfed it in terms of an occasion because of the sensitivities that surrounded it and the continuing criticism we were receiving because of the decision. When people update the history of our relationship with our neighbour I believe what happened 10 years ago will be regarded as a seminal moment when Ireland sent out a very clear message to England and the world that we had moved on while never forgetting our past. A lot of English people came to me personally and thanked me on behalf of various groups. The decision stood the association in good stead. The GAA was shown to be more than just a sporting organisation that took on a political subject and dealt with it very capably.

John Arnold (Opponent to Rule 42 amendment)

Seán Kelly outlined in his book how he changed the seating plan in 2005 to swing the vote in his favour. It reminded me of how Tadhg Kennelly wrote about how he went out to hit Nicholas Murphy in the 2009 football final. It was bad enough that he hit him in the first place but, like Kelly, he felt it was necessary to double the injury. At the time, the GAA was seen as being ecumenical and magnanimous but the downside of it is that all you have to say is the great winner has been Irish rugby. Maybe not at club level but at international level they have benefited hugely, not just from the act of it opening but the huge financial boost generated by the extra 20,000 seats in Croke Park.

The GAA got a great slap on the shoulder and told “well done” for helping a needy neighbour, but was there any great benefit? Kelly spoke about millions going to the GAA and it being ringfenced for the clubs, but I haven’t spoken to one club treasurer who saw any of it. I hope I don’t sound bitter because I’m not — I just feel it wasn’t the right decision. As the late Con Murphy said at the time, were we an association that caters for everything and stands for nothing?

The greatest proof of that came when games other than Six Nations matches and soccer qualifiers were played there. The GAA was told to open up Croke Park because Lansdowne Road was being renovated and if they said no, then the matches going outside the country would be a loss to the economy. Like the Treaty of Limerick, the ink wasn’t dry when there were practice matches there. Now you have the possibility of several of the GAA’s major stadiums opening up for a potential Rugby World Cup. The rugby people are clever; they are a cuckoo organisation. They will put the money generated from it into coaching at schools and sure, when they want a pitch the dear old GAA will provide it to them. They’re not repaying debts for stadiums like we are. The GAA might make €30m, €40m, €50m from it but the rugby stand to make double, no doubt. We’re all fishing from the same pool in terms of players and we’ll be giving sporting rivals the chance to plough serious money into convincing them to play their sports instead.

Peter McKenna (Croke Park stadium manager)

It was obviously a very special occasion, after all the debate over Rule 42 and so on; the French bring a certain swagger, and they did so when they came to Croke Park that day. There wasn’t extra tension for us, the staff — the England game which was coming was more of a potential headache, while we felt there was no reason the France game shouldn’t go off well. It was historic but we would also feel that every time we open the stadium for a big game that it’s a historic occasion in and of itself, that wouldn’t bring pressure.

The situation was a familiar one in terms of what we faced — crowd in, crowd out, there wasn’t going to be a massive French contingent. While there was a real sense of occasion about the game itself, and I wouldn’t describe us as relaxed about it, we didn’t feel under extra pressure.

We were well prepared — temporary turnstiles, sufficient people in the necessary areas, that was all in place, so it worked out well. The France game also helped us to test our systems and to be prepared for that England game, which we felt might be more testing. We felt we were almost under the radar for the France game in that sense. That said, the GAA was also on show that day, and we had to make sure nothing went wrong. That was very important reputationally and so forth; we wanted to prove that we were one of the top stadiums in Europe and could operate to the highest level. What stays with me from the game itself is the result, I guess, the fact that Ireland really should have won, and the late score the French got. It stunned everybody.

Gordon D’Arcy (Former Irish player)

The magnitude of it wasn’t lost on me at the time although I’m probably in a better position now to be able to reflect back on it and pick up the memories of exactly what it was. The (downside) occasion largely contributed to us not winning the Six Nations Championship that year because we were probably caught up on the occasion and not so much on the match. We should have beaten France that day. Instead, we lost 17-20 with a very late try. Then the attention turned quickly to the England game.

I remember that the focus that week was really intense and the focus was on learning from what happened in the French game. The papers were all about the playing of ‘God Save The Queen’ and all of that stuff. It was a seminal moment in Irish sport; you can talk about olive branches and water under the bridge stuff, all those terms, but this was a huge moment for a lot of people. The foresight (leading up to the French game) of the GAA was particularly memorable, it was undoubtedly the building of a bridge between two sports that were essentially in competition with each other for players. I suppose it would have been political suicide by the GAA not to open Croke Park and huge credit must go to Seán Kelly. I remember having the pleasure of meeting him once or twice and you could see that he was the type of progressive president that the GAA had needed; he had the foresight and (obviously) many others had the foresight. It was a good decision, it was important, and it needed to be done.

Seamus Ó Midheach (Event controller in 2007)

I was still event controller for the rugby and soccer games because I was the most experienced person on the staff and it was on our patch as well, after all. Someone coming in from somewhere else, who didn’t know the stadium, it would be a challenge to manage your first event in an unfamiliar venue, with over 80,000 people in attendance... it would be like me going down to take over the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was the same when we had hosted the Ulster finals (from 2004 to 2006) in Croke Park. Danny Murphy, God rest him, was the event controller usually but I was the event controller for those games.

I don’t think [the IRFU] were over the moon about me staying on as event controller for the games, but that’s neither here nor there. It was different, obviously. For instance, the Ireland versus France game, the thing that stands out was the French tradition of bringing a cockerel to rugby games, so we had to employ a vet in case they did. They didn’t, as it happens, and we had the stewards briefed to watch out for that outside as the spectators came in, and they checked for that before the game. There were no language difficulties, they would have had interpreters with them. It was different for the soccer games — with the Germany and Poland games, some of the visiting fans were escorted from the ground by the gardaí and put on airplanes home. They were an element who weren’t there for the games, probably only 20 or so people, but dressed in black — it looked a little sinister. The vast majority were there for the games, obviously, and enjoyed themselves with no problems.

Paul Rouse (Historian and ‘Irish Examiner’ columnist)

The opening of Croke Park to rugby feels like something from a different era. Everything in Ireland seems now to be defined by whether it happened before or after The Crash. In 2006 the people who dominated public discourse in Ireland were intoxicated by the notions of grandeur that flowed from a booming, boiling economy. The opening of Croke Park was seen as further evidence of a maturing society — and the airwaves filled with people who congratulated each other on how great we all were after becoming once we decided to grow up. It was all of a piece with the idea that in a new millennium — having failed for 80 years — the Irish had finally proven themselves to be fit for self-government.

When it comes down to it, the GAA had no choice but to open Croke Park to rugby and then to soccer. The fact of the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road left the IRFU and FAI without an adequate stadium to use on the island — the prospect of Irish international teams playing ‘home’ matches in Cardiff or Edinburgh saw the GAA staring down a public relations disaster. This — and the lure of the rent they would earn — saw the GAA take the decision to open its gates. Above anything else this was a decision which was based in realpolitik. As it turned out, the first match — a defeat to France in a match that really should have been won — proved something of an anti-climax. England in the second rugby match played at Croke Park carried a whole other atmosphere. A Saturday night under lights, a lubricated crowd, and England being savaged, was a magnificent sporting occasion.

Who were the masters now? After all, our developers were busy buying half of London at the time — and also buying up a good slice of England’s provincial cities just for the fun of it. What could possibly go wrong now that we were so mature?

John Hayes (Former Irish international)

Hurling and football were the sports those of us growing up in Cappamore, knew best. Some of my contemporaries were terrific hurlers and went on to challenge for places at inter-county level.

And me? I’d have to admit I wasn’t great even though my brothers and myself would often be seen with a hurley in our hands. I wouldn’t have been a great loss to the GAA, let’s put it like that. I have great memories of playing in Croke Park. Absolutely. It’s the stadium more than any other in Ireland where more children have grown up and played there because every team and county wants to play there. And to think it was rugby and not hurling that we played there!

There was tremendous excitement in the build-up to the French game in 2007. We actually went there the week before and trained there. We needed to get used to it, it was a home game for us and we didn’t know the surroundings. Even the dressing rooms were different and, of course, a hurling pitch is a lot bigger than a rugby pitch. That was the first thing we all noticed when we went out. The advertising signs had to be brought in to try and create the feeling that it was a rugby pitch. We were staying in a hotel out in Stillorgan so we had a different bus journey. Croke Park was a different house and a bigger house than Lansdowne Road with a hell of a lot more people there, over 80,000, and it was a great occasion and a wonderful atmosphere and one that none of us will ever forget. I have good memories of the match itself. France played really well and their captain and hooker Raphael Ibanez got a great try but we came back into the game and went ahead with not very long to go. We didn’t secure the kick-off and they attacked and scored and that put a bit of a dampener on the occasion, especially because we could have won the game. We put ourselves in a position to win it with a couple of minutes left but then we didn’t clear our lines which you could put down to inexperience because it’s something you need to learn to do as a team.

Two weeks later came the famous game against England and that’s one that’s always recalled, the anthems beforehand and the television coverage and then the game itself, and our win by 43-13. In all, I think we played four years at Croke Park and it was always something very special.

Reggie Corrigan (Former Irish international)

I was still playing for Leinster at the time but I’d finished up with international rugby the year before so there was a twinge of regret. The whole thing was new to a lot of the lads because they wouldn’t have been to Croke Park too often, but I knew it fairly well because my mother was from Tipp and my father was from Galway. My uncle was Peter Lee, who played centre-half back for Galway and he played in the 1983 All-Ireland final the year that Dublin ended up with the 12 men. I was at that game and they won the National League there in 1981. So I didn’t feel too intimidated going over to the northside!

It was a great day. The main memory beforehand was the crowds congregating outside the different pubs, people trying to find different spots to go to and not knowing which watering holes were which. There was a great sense of excitement outside the ground and then once we went in I was in the Lower Hogan. The French game was great but the outstanding memory of that whole time was the playing of ‘God Save The Queen’ a few weeks later and the fact that we were hearing it in Croke Park. The French game was brilliant but that was the highlight. It was a good time. I think I went to all the matches in Croke Park. I never really found that it was out of place or didn’t belong there.

Karl Richardson (IRFU comm- unications and media manager in 2007)

From an IRFU organisational perspective, there was a huge amount of preparation that went into it. It was our first game at Croke Park. We had a great operations team led by Martin Murphy, who is with the Aviva Stadium now, and there was huge work done by (IRFU chief executive) Philip Browne, Pádraig Power (commercial director), Kevin Potts, and Pádraig Slattery.

The abiding memory for me is how well everything worked between the IRFU and the GAA. They were incredibly accommodating and I believe that bodes really well for the future for putting together a really compelling and exciting bid to host the 2023 World Cup in Ireland. I certainly cannot remember anything significant going wrong off the pitch. One of the things I’ve only remembered now talking about it was an interview I facilitated between Philip Browne and (then GAA president) Nickey Brennan on the steps of the stand where they present the All-Ireland trophies. I can recall looking at them doing that and thinking, ‘Wow, this is not something that anybody would have thought possible.’ It was a sign of just how far we had come.

Everyone on the IRFU side was respectful of the decision the GAA had made and also very aware of the responsibility the organisation had in being the first sport into the stadium. One of the most difficult things I remember from the media side of things was helping Paul O’Connell up off the floor to do the interviews after the game. Paul was always very professional on that side of things but, it wasn’t so much that they were all exhausted, but emotionally drained.

There was a feeling that they hadn’t just let the team down but that they’d let Ireland and the occasion down as well. It was so different to the aftermath of the England game when there a pure sense of relief.


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