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GAA will have big call to make unless club campaigns can continue

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The Government move to place further restrictions on sports events came at a delicate time for the GAA. There is now less than a month to go before intercounty training is due to resume and the tightened rules have placed a question mark over the future of the season.

There was shock among officials yesterday at the revelation of the measures, which came out of the blue.

There had been a growing belief that serious rolling back of some of the lockdown relaxation was going to happen. For instance the over-70s restrictions had been mooted overnight but Croke Park officials had no inkling that tighter sports regulations were on the horizon.

The only rationale immediately suggested for moving matches behind closed doors was that the congregation and transport of people before and afterwards was a matter of concern.

Also, acting chief medical officer Ronan Glynn told yesterday’s media conference that there had been more outbreaks in households and clusters linked to social and sporting activities.

This was news to the GAA, who last night requested a meeting with Dr Glynn in order to look at NPHET’s “empirical evidence which informed the requirement for the association to curtail its activities”.

As is well known, the capped attendances of 200 includes everyone in the ground so realistically the spectator element is about half of that. Maybe the tendency of crowds to bunch a little influenced the crackdown, as it can be hard to determine what groups are family or part of the same household.

Yet in general the numbers appear well enough spread. Some officials point to the anomaly that 100 people watching a match is an issue whereas the 37 on the pitch, 30 of whom are in physical contact, is not.

Exit from lockdown

Amongst the reasons for lifting sports restrictions in Phase 3 of the exit from lockdown was that outdoor activity was 19 times less likely to result in transmission than indoors and the exposure of one player to another unlikely to be sustained enough to create risk of infection.

Presumably that continues to be the case, as the actual playing of matches continues to be permitted.

It isn’t known either to what extent protocols have been analysed to pass judgement on the access to and egress from venues to ascertain whether social distancing is being observed or breached.

Croke Park hasn’t officially responded to the news, as there will first need to be consultation with the counties as to the next move as well as a number of clarifications to be sought.

There is for example the qualification that exceptions to the sports restrictions, most relevantly the limit of 15 on any outdoor training, will be made for elite and professional sports and horse racing.

Does that include intercounty footballers and hurlers? Would it also apply, for instance, to the Shelmaliers and Naomh Éanna hurlers who are five days from the Wexford county final?

Already the Government has demonstrated something of a tin ear when it comes to the GAA – the gaffe in the lockdown order for Kildare, Laois and Offaly, allowing county teams to train when such activity had been expressly prohibited didn’t for instance go unnoticed.

The problem for Government and to an extent the GAA, which after all only has to follow instructions – inconvenient as they may be – is that it is very hard to lock things down, open them up and then shut them again, shedding valuable weeks as you go.

Wexford and after them, Waterford are outliers in getting to their county finals so quickly over the next fortnight but all other counties currently have clubs heading into the business end of their championships. Are they allowed train without restriction for quarter-finals or semi-finals?

If not, the GAA has little option but to shut down club activity. Were that to happen, the whole delicate balance between club and county that has operated so well recently will be completely upset.

Getting county championships back on track will eat into the time allocated for the inter-county season, which is virtually vacuum packed in the tightness of its schedules. In the circumstances can the provincial and All-Ireland championships go ahead?

Great distraction

The GAA won’t – nor should it – make a fuss about public health measures designed for the community’s wellbeing but the association will have a big call to make unless its club campaigns can somehow continue.

Everyone would like to see the All-Ireland and provincial championships go ahead. It would be a great distraction at the end of an unspeakably difficult year for the country.

Although the GAA has expressed consistent misgivings about playing matches behind closed doors, the general mood in the association would probably prefer to see something rather than nothing.

People have got used to the crowd restrictions and are by and large – as the impressive viewing figures for television and streaming indicate – getting used to watching all their matches on screen.

The Government is said – and this is certainly the view within Croke Park – to be keen that the championships go ahead but with the ability of the counties to raise even meagre revenue for their teams now further undermined and the significant impediments introduced on Tuesday, there comes a point when it just may not be possible.

A week ago, I wrote that with all of the difficulties stacking up, it wouldn’t take many more setbacks before the abandonment of the intercounty championship would look more like a solution than a problem.

Or, as one official put it resignedly: “Look, at the end of the day what we do is organise games. We’re not getting carried away with that in a public health crisis.”

smoran@irishtimes.com

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