OPINION: Building an indoor arena should be the next step for Irish rugby

A new vision for rugby in Connacht and Ireland could include a very different type of venue

OPINION: Building an indoor arena should be the next step for Irish rugby

Credit: Dunedin Venues

Earlier this year, Connacht CEO Willie Ruane revealed plans to take rugby in the province forward, which included the development of a new stadium. Surely it’s time for an indoor arena in Ireland, and Galway is the perfect place to build one.

Back in October 2011, Ireland took on Italy in their final group match at the Rugby World Cup. The game took place at the remarkable Forsyth-Barr stadium in Dunedin. The atmosphere was electric and the conditions were perfect for running rugby. Ireland duly obliged and ran out 36-6 winners.

Dunedin is located on the south-east coast of New Zealand’s south island. The region has an oceanic southern climate with strong westerly winds, and experiences a succession of depressions and subtropical anticyclones which can bring an array of weather on any given day and sometimes, any given hour.

The former home of the local Otago Highlanders was Carisbrook, aptly nicknamed the 'House of Pain'. Uncovered from the elements, matches often turned into a slugfest. Former All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith even recalls having to wear a wetsuit to keep warm in a Test against the Lions in 1983.  

Construction began on the current venue in June 2009 and was completed in August 2011. The transparent roof is made out of EFTE, which was originally designed for the space industry. This same material has been used in other remarkable structures such as the Beijing National Aquatics Centre and the UK’s National Space Centre.

This technology allows for natural grass turf under a permanent roof which internally stands 37 metres high.

Image: ©INPHO/Photosport/John Davidson

Given the success of the Forsyth-Barr stadium, why don’t we have one in Ireland? Dublin doesn’t need another stadium, nor does Limerick. Since Munster’s rugby team is primarily based in Limerick, that also rules Cork if, as would be required, the new venue is to be filled every two weeks. That leaves Galway.

Galway and Dunedin are very similar in many ways; both are regional cities which are wide open to the elements. It could just be a coincidence, but the Highlanders also won their first Super 14 title recently, finishing ahead of traditional New Zealand powerhouses like the Canterbury Crusaders and the Waikato Chiefs.

Connacht Rugby is going in the right direction, and the development of a state-of-the-art indoor arena might help push them onto a new level. There is also the possibility of the Galway United football team sharing the venue so there can be year-round games to attend, while it could also serve as the new home of the Irish women’s rugby team.

There is no doubt that such a stadium would benefit the local region. Speaking exclusively to Newstalk, Kim Barnes, the marketing and communications manager for the stadium, said that there are 25 full time employees at the ground and, depending on the event, there could be up to 400 temporary staff working. 

She added that "since opening in August 2011, we have hosted more than 1.3 million guests under the roof. We also offer a Community Events Fund of $750,000 which is available for free or subsidized venue rental for local groups to host their events at Forsyth Barr Stadium."

The venue has hosted concerts by Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond, while the All Blacks play there regularly and have welcomed South Africa, Australia and England since 2012. They entertained Wales at the venue earlier this summer.   

Another aspect to consider is that as the IRFU slowly accepts the need for an Irish Sevens team, Galway could bid to host a leg on the Sevens circuit. Staying with New Zealand, the Wellington Sevens weekend has been a huge success over the years and has contributed enormously to the local economy.

Image: Ireland's Aoife Doyle scores a try at the Women's Sevens Rugby Global Olympic Qualifying Tournament in UCD. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

John Milford, Chief Executive of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce noted that "as a sporting and a cultural event it’s been a huge draw for people outside the region and a very valuable contributor to the local economy for many years.

"At its peak (2011-2013), it was estimated that total new spend in the city each year, including by spectators, corporates and sponsors, was between $15 million and $18 million. Much of that was in the city’s bar, restaurant, and accommodation scene. Much of it also came from out of town. For example, in 2011, when new spending was estimated at $18 million, 63 per cent of spectators came from outside the Wellington region for the weekend."

There are a couple of locations if a new stadium for Galway can be agreed upon. Redeveloping either the Sportsground or Eamonn Deacy Park are the obvious choices, but local residents will have to fully support the plan as the maximum external height is 47 metres - equivalent to a 12 storey building.   

Although the Forsyth-Barr stadium has a capacity of 30,000 which is beyond what would be required in Galway, this can be lowered due to the temporary seating at either end of the ground. Connacht are making the right noises about the future, but now is the time to build something this island desperately needs.