The Christy O'Connor column: GAA have so many hurdles to overcome before hurling and football can return

The Christy O'Connor column: GAA have so many hurdles to overcome before hurling and football can return
A general view of a template to make the hurleys for former Kilkenny hurlers Tommy Walsh and Michael Fennelly at The Star Hurley in Kilkenny. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

AMIDST the darkness, a huge shard of light suddenly appeared last week when the Government’s five-phase plan for reopening Ireland revealed the outline of a roadmap for GAA activity to resume.

Pitches were expected to reopen on May 18. Non-contact training was to be allowed from June 8. But what did that really mean?

If the gates of GAA grounds were swung open on May 18, would 500-600 people suddenly arrive down to start pucking or kicking around? What was the criteria for non-contact training? How many players could be in a GAA field at any one time?

That detail could come in time but at least people had hope. Club players could think about training again. County players could loosely see a championship happening later in the year. A roadmap was in front of everyone at last, but where could that map really take team sports?

There also appeared to be a difference between the Government’s perspective on lifting sports restrictions and that of NPHET (the National Public Health Emergency Team).

In an interview in the Irish Times last weekend, NPHET member and virologist Dr Cillian de Gascún said a return to team sports was not something NPHET could recommend from a public health perspective without social distancing.

Making that recommendation was harder again with the assumption there isn’t going to be a vaccine or an anti-viral therapy for 12 to 18 months. “I think team sports are going to be in a very difficult position,” said de Gascún.

When Leo Varadkar spoke on The Late Late Show about a return to team sports, and the possibility of staging an All-Ireland later this year, digesting his comments was like taking a sip from your favourite drink and then washing it down with cod liver oil. Varadkar clearly isn’t a GAA anorak but after the initial surge of positivity, realism quickly dawned — how can players maintain a two-metre gap of social distancing in field sports?

The GAA had been engaged in multiple different scenario planning in recent weeks, none of which they had been sharing. Yet after the Government released their five-phase roadmap, the membership was craving realistic direction from the GAA.

Their announcement on Wednesday offered more clarity, and was in synch with what the GAA had been planning all along; pitches were never going to open on May 18; restrictions around organising on-field activity are expected to remain in place until July 20; there is little or no appetite for inter-county games to be played behind closed doors; the community is every bit as important as the competitions.

The GAA statement said the Association will attempt to seek clarity around some of the issues that have arisen in internal discussions since last Friday “including the challenge of social distancing in contact sport”.

The GAA will also continue to monitor the dates and timelines as revealed by the Government, with arrangements remaining under constant review.

The GAA can’t do any more, especially if there is a spike in infection rates, which will force the Government to review the different phases in place for a return to normality. More infections will mean less normality. And back to more restrictions.

The sun rises behind the Ballycotton Lighthouse. Sport will have to wait for another while. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
The sun rises behind the Ballycotton Lighthouse. Sport will have to wait for another while. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

As of now, the GAA don’t anticipate a return to inter-county action before October. Nobody knows how matters will be by that stage but running an inter-county championship heading into the winter could be an even greater risk if there is a second Covid-19 surge, combined with the onset of the winter flu season.

If inter-county matches do get the green light at that stage, a number of issues may still need to be addressed, particularly around frequent testing for players and management. That will involve an element of risk to players, their families and work colleagues.

Some players may not want to take that risk, especially if they are living with parents, grandparents or siblings with an underlying condition.

If some players decide to opt out of the squad for some of those reasons, is that an equitable championship? What will happen if guidelines in Northern Ireland are different to those in the Republic? Without Ulster, there can’t be championships.

The same number of concerns exist for club players. Unless there is a miraculous improvement in the situation, insurance around clubs and games is another minefield. If clubs have suspended their insurance over a certain period, and there is a claim from an incident that happened on their grounds during that period, does that put the club’s trustees in an extremely difficult position?

In that context, it’s easy to see why the GAA reminded its membership that the Player Injury Scheme is suspended and will remain so until an official return to action protocol is confirmed.

Before that can happen, a lot of planning must take place first. Clubs will need sufficient stewarding trained to ensure proper social distancing is observed and maintained during training sessions, and around the club.

Every club will more than likely have to appoint a Covid-19 officer. How much training will be required for those officers, and the platoons of stewards required to carry out those duties effectively?

That is only the start of the huge volume of planning required before the gates of any GAA club can open again. If underage teams below the age of 12 are allowed to train, how do you maintain social distancing between kids, many of whom just go for the social aspect of the session?

Everyone is looking for answers. But the questions are still only beginning.

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