Croke Park set for Six Nations bow
Huw Richards
February 8, 2007

This weekend the first-ever rugby union international will take place at the impressive Croke Park with Ireland entertaining France in a crucial Six Nations Championship clash. Huw Richards previews the historic occasion

New Six Nations venues are hardly the novelty they were. Before the Parc des Princes - a completely transformed stadium on a site used by France before the first World War - took over from the Stade Colombes in 1973, the competition's junior location was Murrayfield (1925).

Little else changed for a quarter of the century. But the past decade has brought us newcomers in the shape of the Stade de France, Wembley, the Stadio Flaminio and - assuming one does not regard it as a continuation of the National Stadium/Arms Park - the Millennium Stadium.

Nothing, though, quite like Croke Park, which stages its first international when Ireland play France on Sunday.

The North Dublin stadium is on any measure one of the world's great stadia - echoing to the memories
of Christy Ring, Jack Lynch, the Kerry footballers of the 1980s and any number of heroes of Kilkenny hurling or Dublin football - a spectacular hybrid that is three-quarters Old Trafford and the rest Old Murrayfield, the giant Hill 16 terrace beloved of Dublin football fans.

It is that terrace that is a reminder of its other, deeper, function - as a shrine to nationalist memory.

The Hill was built on rubble from the ruins of Sackville Street - O'Connell Street's name before independence - left after the 1916 Easter Rising. On another side rises the Hogan stand, named
after the Tipperary captain killed in the massacre at the ground (depicted, albeit inaccurately, in the film Michael Collins) by British forces in 1920.

To have rugby played there - against France, never mind the English who pitch up complete with an anthem redolent of the British ascendancy in two weeks time, is akin to Ian Paisley presiding over an all-faiths service.

It represents a burial of old hatreds, a moment of cultural transformation of Ireland. It is no fluke that it was the Ulster counties, for whom those old hatreds remain more of a current reality, who were most resistant to the Gaelic Athletic Association lifting the ban on playing 'garrison games' at Croke Park.

Irish excitement at playing there is palpable. Brian O'Driscoll has spoken with some wistfulness of the time he nearly played there - when his school qualified for a Gaelic games final, only for an ill-time move to another school to destroy his chances.

One suspects that recent Ireland players like Keith Wood - whose play always had a strong echo of the schoolboy hurler he'd once been - will look with a little envy at those who will be
getting the chance to play on Sunday.

It will be a great occasion. But is it necessarily an advantage to Ireland? This is not just because the Irish squad includes a number of Ulstermen who can not be expected to regard Croke Park in quite the same way.

It is to do with what makes up 'home' and the advantage that it brings. Croke Park will be filled with 80,000 Irishmen, desperate to see O'Driscoll's team take another step towards that elusive championship and Grand Slam.

But there were 80,000 Frenchmen in the Stade de France when the French team moved there from the Parc des Princes in 1998, and it still took them several years to adjust to the place.

Home is not just a matter of the ground being in your territory. It is familiarity - the same journey to the ground before the match, the same hook and locker in the changing room with the same team-mates changing either side of you, and that dodgy shower that never quite produces water
of the warmth you want.

Still more important are the external factors. There are the idiosyncracies of the turf, the sightlines and, above all for players who have to make or field kicks, the knowledge of local wind conditions that only experience can bring.

Ronan O'Gara knew Lansdowne Road's numerous idiosyncracies as well as he knows his own back garden. He had hardly kicked a ball in Croke Park before this week.

Of course it is great that Ireland are playing there. Something had to be done about Lansdowne Road, much as many of us loved it, and it would have been sad had a great stadium just across town not been made available.

Maybe it will be the inspiration Ireland needs to finally take the big prize. But don't be entirely surprised if the 'Croke Park factor' of which Irish journalists have been making a great deal turns out to work as much against as for them.

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