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Frank Roche: Rugby in Croker is the only gig in town as Leinster’s GAA fans vote with their feet


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Between 2005 and ’08, Caffrey managed a Dublin football team that dominated Leinster but never quite figured out a way to reach an All-Ireland final.

No matter: the Jacks (and even their victims) lapped it up. Croker’s 82,300 capacity was invariably threatened for every Leinster final. Even semi-finals, be it against old enemies or midland interlopers, were must-go-to events.

Former Dublin manager Paul Caffrey

Compare and contrast to this year’s Leinster quarter-final between Dublin and Meath (21,445 were there to see the inevitable happen) and this Sunday’s semi-final double-header featuring Louth-Kildare and Dublin-Offaly. So far, so semi-deserted.

Now fast-forward six days to when elite rugby returns to GAA HQ with a Champions Cup semi-final between Cullen’s Leinster and Northampton Saints.

With the Aviva double-booked and with Rule 42 a long-forgotten relic, Croker was the natural venue choice for Leinster. And within hours of tickets going on general sale last Friday, this glamour fixture was declared a sell-out.

Which is great for Leinster prospects, great for the competition coffers and great as a general feelgood story for Irish rugby.

But the optics, from a specifically Leinster GAA perspective, are pretty jarring.

Let’s predict that 25,000 pay through the turnstiles this Sunday (a not unreasonable figure given the paltry levels of Kildare support this season) and that the subsequent Leinster final attracts 35,000 … that would mean a cumulative attendance of under 82,000 for all three Dublin fixtures in Leinster this season (with apologies to Offaly, but hey).

In other words, where once the Dubs could fill out Croker in one fell swoop, now it may take them three games.

Where have all the fans gone?

As ever, there is not one single reason but rather a perfect storm of circumstances to explain the incremental yet relentless drop-off. Start with Leinster itself being a busted flush; move onto a new SFC structure that further erodes the relevance of provincial combat; don’t forget the split-season and the dubious appeal of ‘summer’ in April; you can’t ignore the cost factor of all those extra matches; the post-08 economic meltdown left its mark; and here is one last (perhaps overlooked) consideration.

It’s 22 years since the new Hogan Stand opened its turnstiles, completing Croker’s famous horseshoe and bringing capacity close to 80,000 – it would later rise to its current capacity in 2005, when the new Hill 16 and Nally End terrace opened. A concrete example of ‘build and they will come’.

For a few memorable months in the summer of ’02, as his Dublin team caught fire, Tommy Lyons doubled as the GAA’s unofficial one-man PR machine.

The Dubs in Croker, he kept reminding us, was “the only gig in town”.

However, it was during the ‘Pillar’ years that support reached a sustained peak. The four Leinster finals won by Caffrey’s Dublin between ’05 and ’08 each attracted over 80,000.

The Leinster accountants mustn’t have known their good fortune in 2007 when a Dublin-Meath quarter-final (78,002) went to a replay (82,206) before the Dubs faced Offaly in a stand-alone semi-final (77,623) and then Laois in the final (81,394). Do the maths: 319,225 .

During the last 13 years of Dublin’s unbroken monopoly, there have been a few very decent Leinster final crowds (69,657 in 2012 and 62,660 in ‘14, both v Meath; plus 66,734 v Kildare in ‘17). But attendances in the forties have been more commonplace, veering below that in 2016 (v Westmeath) and as low as 33,328 in 2022 (v Kildare).

In fairness, this indifference is not unique to Leinster: just 12,499 turned up for last year’s Kerry-Clare Munster final in Limerick.

Curiously, Sunday will be Dublin’s first provincial date with Offaly since 2007. You might have one-third of that year’s crowd, even with a double-header that includes a win-or-bust match for Kildare against Louth.

But while the Faithful have thus far escaped the juggernaut during Dublin’s 40-match demolition of the Leinster pack, their fans know what is coming. Do they really want to make a day out of it, especially if they have GAAGO and can watch it on (or behind) the sofa?

When Offaly last conquered Leinster, in 1997, it encapsulated the glorious uncertainty of that era. Now it has become almost a zombie championship, and there is no obvious fix beyond Meath and Kildare maxing out on their potential while Dublin simultaneously go into a tailspin. The problem, though, is that Croke Park is now too big for it.

During the noughties, when Dublin had to fight for Leinster glory – and not always successfully – the public came. As the margins multiplied, crowds diminished. It’s not rocket science.

Our own belief is that the Leinster football final should remain in Croker, if only to protect the prestige of this admittedly damaged product; but surely it’s time to move the semi-finals elsewhere, to tighter provincial venues that might – just might – level the playing field or even generate more atmosphere?

Dublin wouldn’t object. Nor would the pubs and cafes of Tullamore or Portlaoise or Kilkenny.

Unless, of course, nobody turned up.

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