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A lesson from Otago: why the GAA must never go pro

MUNSTER beat the All Blacks at rugby once, a fact your future grandchildren will no doubt be made aware of because, more than 30 years on, the exaggeration has not abated and we are due another play about it any day now.

If the people of Otago were as susceptible to bullshit there would be no need for them to bother with sheep farming in that southern province of New Zealand; they could leave the land run wild and subsist on caviar and Champagne bought from the proceeds of stage shows chronicling old rugby victories.

Otago has a population less than half that of county Cork and more than half of it is based in Dunedin, a city with Scottish roots. On four of the occasions that the pick of Britain and Ireland’s rugby players have taken the field in the city’s Carisbrook stadium, they have been firmly sent homewards, to think again.

When the Otago Daily Times ranked the 150 greatest moments in the province’s sporting history, the highest any of those victories over the Lions placed was number 51. Much better teams have been dispatched at Carisbrook, where more than 150 future All Blacks – a record – have worn Otago’s blue and gold.

If your grandchildren lose their way in life to the extent that they become a British and Irish Lion, however, you need not fear for their mental wellbeing should they face the next Jeff Wilson or Taine Randell at the ramshackle, intimidating old stadium.

It won’t be there – the process of dismantling it began this year. The Otago team won’t be there either, because the Otago Rugby Football Union, 131 years after it was founded, is due to be liquidated around the time you read this.

When the game went professional the marketers of Otago rugby christened the stadium the ‘House of Pain’. In a convulsion of fate, the old ground has inflicted more hurt on its diehard patrons than it ever did on visitors.

In a bid to ensure that the province’s feats on the pitch continued in the professional era, the ORFU borrowed too much against the stadium and paid too much to its players – even though their wages range from a modest NZ$15,000-$60,000 a year.

They couldn’t afford Carisbrook any more, but they also can’t afford to play in the shiny, silver and charmless Forsyth Barr stadium, built for last year’s rugby world cup. When you total the ORFU’s woes, the bill comes in at just under NZ$2.5m; they can’t field a team in New Zealand’s provincial competition for the upcoming season, because that would bring the debt above NZ$3m.

Otago operate in a country where rugby faces little competition, yet they are far from the only province in financial trouble. It is not inconceivable that rugby there might reach the point where the only sustainable professional teams are the five that compete in the Super 15. The simple fact is that New Zealand is too small to support more than a few professional sports teams.

Yet some would have you believe that Ireland, with a similar population and two other major professional field sports, can sustain 31 professional Gaelic football teams.

One recent column in The Sunday Independent was headlined ‘Movement towards professionalism looks irresistible’, while an Irish Times columnist has proclaimed that players who train and play for free are ‘gobshites’ who are missing out on the south Dublin ‘totty’ available to Leinster rugby players.

Listen, if have no problem with the concept of Gaelic football going professional, you also have a loose understanding of capitalism and not much of a head for figures.

Even if you only paid 30 footballers in each county the average industrial wage of about €35,000, that’s an annual wage bill of €32.6m. That’s before we get to paying hurlers or the myriad of support staff that would cease to operate on a voluntary basis. It is also before we consider that this is a sport without a worldwide audience, no lucrative TV deal, and no prospect of getting one.

Those 80,000 attendances that are used to back an argument for professionalism are actually the proof that it cannot work; because they happen only for the biggest games. Ireland is a country where fair-weather supporters like to attend such ‘events’ a few times a year; no county can boast a support base of more than 10,000 that will show up week in, week out. Like New Zealand, the country is simply too small.

Thank the heavens such basic facts exist, because in a world where self-sacrifice for the honour of your community leaves you branded a ‘gobshite’, the powerful emotional arguments in favour of amateurism may not hold out forever.

Even if Ireland could support 12 of the most populous counties going pro, what would that mean for life in, say, Longford, where the representative side is one of the few ways to express local pride. Every Larry is walking tall today after three league victories from three; if the game was professional, they would probably find themselves, like Otago, without a team at all, and life there would be a lot poorer.

There is still rugby in Dunedin, we hasten to add. People will be able to go and watch the Otago Highlanders Super 15 team at the Forsyth Barr. They will be no more than consumers though; there to gawp at the retractable roof, there to gurn at fireworks and cheerleaders and brands, there to watch Franchise A v Corporation B and exit through the gift shop.

They will never again stand on a packed terrace and feel their spirit swell as 15 men who are part of their community serve up a mad defiance of the odds, spurred by the love of where they come from.

They will not have the chance to show their grandchildren what that felt like; they will only be able to tell them about it.

 

 

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Eamonn O Molloy
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Eamonn O'Molloy is Gaelic Football columnist withThe Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @EamonnOMolloy

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