Gaelic members clear the way for Irish 2023 World Cup bid

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish rugby's governing body won the backing of their Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) peers on Saturday to use their stadiums, including the 82,300-capacity Croke Park, in a potential bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Buoyed by New Zealand's hosting in 2011, a country which has a smaller population than the island of Ireland, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) is considering making a formal bid for the 2023 tournament but needed the support of the GAA to do so.

Alongside Croke Park, there are another 10 Gaelic grounds as big or bigger than the second-largest rugby stadium in the country, Munster's Thomond Park, although many would need significant renovation to stage an international tournament.

The GAA, governing body for Ireland's unique sports hurling and Gaelic football, had to ask its members to allow the stadiums to be opened up to other sports which it had previously done eight years ago.

In 2005 the GAA changed its rules to permit rugby and soccer to be played at Croke Park while the old Lansdowne Road was being upgraded.

The vote was a landmark decision as Croke Park, the national stadium for Gaelic football and hurling, was the venue for the original "Bloody Sunday" in 1920 when British troops killed 14 people during Ireland's War of Independence.

Until 1971 the GAA banned members from playing or attending so-called "foreign games" like rugby and the politically-charged Six Nations game against England in Croke Park in 2007 marked a significant step in British-Irish relations.

Saturday's vote was passed by 93 percent of delegates at the GAA's annual congress, the association said on its website, boosting Ireland's chances of holding the competition against likely competition from the United States and Russia.

The World Cup will be hosted by England in 2015 and then Japan in 2019, the first time the tournament will be staged outside either Europe or the southern hemisphere powerhouses of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

The IRFU also have the support of the Irish government to prepare a bid and the country's sports minister welcomed Saturday's decision.

"The support of the GAA is a very important element in relation to any future bid by the IRFU to host the Rugby World Cup in Ireland," Leo Varadkar said in a statement.

"I am very pleased that Congress has approved this motion to allow the inclusion of Croke Park and other GAA stadiums in the list of venues. This spirit of co-operation is very welcome."

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin, Editing by Tom Pilcher)