Testing times for the GAA if they are to see senior championships through pandemic 

Testing times for the GAA if they are to see senior championships through pandemic 

The Louth players stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to their  Allianz Football League Division 3 Round 6 match against Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh The team's captain expressed concern at the lack of testing protocols before and after the game. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

THE thought of another lockdown, as we head into the dark winter nights is a rather unappealing prospect, but at least this time we have the consolation of having live sport on our TVs, something denied us in the first lockdown.

These games are sadly not of the local variety that entertained us during their return back in the summer. The decision now is that the elite forms of the games; in soccer, rugby and in the GAA would continue. These include the continuation of the League of Ireland season, the resumption of the Six Nations and the return of GAA intercounty matches, to firstly conclude the national leagues and then commence the championships.

The rationale being that elite sports would have the resources and distance to cater and protect the players and backroom staff in a bubble away from the dangers of the pandemic in the outside world.

That seems to be a reasonable assumption for the professional players of soccer and rugby, whose working day goes from the training ground to the playing ground and back home. A bubble of fellow professionals paid to do what they are told and restricted to a small circle of contacts.

That cannot be said for the amateur GAA player. They have the requirements of the professional athlete but must also then include the circle of colleagues and family through their daily contacts at work and/or college.

The problem for GAA players is that their governing body is such a large and impressive edifice that it inspires confidence in its professionalism, but it must be remembered that their game is entirely populated by amateur players.

The bubble that professional players enjoy does not exist in the GAA where players have a completely separate life outside of the sport they play.

This was starkly brought to light by Louth football captain Bevan Duffy in an interview with his local Louth radio station LMFM. Talking after the 'Wee County's' journey to Cork to fulfil their Division Three football clash, Duffy expressed his shock and frustration that not one of the Louth squad was tested for Covid-19 either before or after the match on Leeside.

He noted that players arrived in Cork by bus and private car with no knowledge of protocol or if there would be testing.

Duffy was surprised that players, many of whom live at home with elderly parents and grandparents were expected to go out and play with their county team against strangers from another county, without any confidence that they or the players they face were clear from having Covid-19.

"I don't understand with the case numbers going up all over the country, how all of a sudden GAA intercounty players are suddenly immune to it. Surely, before the national league campaign started every player in an intercounty squad should have been tested. What if someone picks up the virus and then brings it home?

"Zero testing I just can't understand it. They say the disease isn't coming from GAA players but how do we know? If there are no tests you are not going to get positive tests."

Duffy is right to have concerns, while it is true these players are elite athletes and are unlikely to be too adversely hit should they contract the virus, their amateur status means that they also put their extended family and friends in a situation of risk that is not required by players in other elite sports since they can isolate themselves from broader society.

Cork's Mark Collins scores his side's fifth goal in the Allianz Football League Division 3 Round 6 match against Louth. It's great to see the intercounty matches back, but the GAA has to do more testing of its players if they are to continue their season through the pandemic restrictions.  	Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Cork's Mark Collins scores his side's fifth goal in the Allianz Football League Division 3 Round 6 match against Louth. It's great to see the intercounty matches back, but the GAA has to do more testing of its players if they are to continue their season through the pandemic restrictions.  Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

This situation is a lot to ask an amateur athlete to accept. He may be okay with putting his own health at risk but would be a lot slower putting a loved one's life into jeopardy. 

There is an important need that we can all recognise, both for mental health and economic reasons, to keep the show going this winter but the Association probably needs to go beyond what the other sport are doing, to ensure the health and safety of the players and their extended families.

The GAA have a growing dilemma here now. News that Leitrim have given Down a walkover rather than take to the field in these unsure times, got worse when Longford decided their footballers would to do the same against Cork. which kind of makes a joke of the remainder of the national league.

With both them and the Government indicating that underage and minor games would be taken out of the elite criteria, it leaves the Association scrabbling to save the season at senior level.

That starts with testing as Duffy requested. They need to test all the players to start and continue then with a rolling testing system across the season. This can be done at county board level or centrally but it needs to be comprehensive.

An RTÉ poll showed that 67% of people questioned felt that the GAA championships should not go ahead. This will only grow stronger should there be an outbreak within the teams.

If the championships go ahead, players need to be comfortable with protocols and testing and if they're not, they need to be able to make their concerns known through the GPA anonymously and without fear of punishment. It's the least that can be expected for players that are unpaid for their labours and don't have the comfort of extracting themselves from their families and society just for the benefit of a game.

Great games, but still just a game.

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