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'Bleak world with no games'

Championship played in empty grounds better than the alternative says Jamesie

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Semple Stadium lies empty after the Bord Gáis Energy Munster Hurling Under 20 Championship Quarter-Final match between Tipperary and Clare on Monday

Semple Stadium lies empty after the Bord Gáis Energy Munster Hurling Under 20 Championship Quarter-Final match between Tipperary and Clare on Monday

SPORTSFILE

Semple Stadium lies empty after the Bord Gáis Energy Munster Hurling Under 20 Championship Quarter-Final match between Tipperary and Clare on Monday

Forget the new normal - there is nothing remotely ordinary about 'summer hurling' as winter looms and Covid-19 restrictions tighten and it all plays out in an echo chamber.

But Jamesie O'Connor makes a valid point: would you prefer this or the dystopian alternative, no sport at all?

The Clare legend will be part of the Sky Sports team that launches its belated 2020 live championship coverage with the Leinster SHC quarter-final between Dublin and Laois in Croke Park this Saturday evening.

The following afternoon, O'Connor will be hoping that his native Banner now managed by former teammate Brian Lohan can upset the Munster odds against provincial holders Limerick in Semple Stadium.

The GAA's two most iconic venues will be deserted, save for the all-important players and their management teams, officials, stewards and media.

Doubt

But after a tumultuous week, during which the very future of the senior GAA championships has been mired in doubt, and their underage equivalents parked after much confusion, the race for Liam MacCarthy will start after all this weekend.

And as O'Connor points out: "Obviously it's going to be different walking out in Thurles or Croke Park with nobody there, but the prize is still the same.

"Somebody is still going to be Munster champions, somebody is still going to be Leinster champions; two teams are still going to have all the media and build up that goes with being in an All-Ireland final, hoping we get to that stage.

"It's a new reality for everybody, it's not ideal, but it beats the alternative we were facing - a world without sport is a bleak, dark place, so it's just great to have it back and have the other sports back as well to keep us going through the winter."

For all that, O'Connor expects a bumpy ride. He cites some of the problems encountered by the NFL, "a billion dollar sport with massive resources" - and yet coronavirus outbreaks have forced date switches or postponements.

"That's with these guys and all the money involved, they can't get inside their facilities without somebody holding a thermometer to their forehead, they are Covid-tested every day of the week … and still, with the best laid plans, they have had to revert to plan B and make alternative arrangements," he points out.

"I think everybody is realistic, we all hope that we can get to a situation where the games get played and we don't have an asterisk beside whoever is champions at the end of the day, with Tipperary and Kilkenny having had to pull out at the semi-final or quarter-final stage," he adds by way of hypothetical example.

"Nobody wants that, but at the same time we have to accept we are in a pandemic, we have never seen anything like this in our lifetime.

"The lads in school were saying 'this is our emergency' and we just have to keep our fingers crossed, that we take whatever precautions that we can, that we have rapid testing available to us, that we can mitigate and try minimise the uncertainty that is going to be there.

"And I think it is inevitable that there will be a casualty along the line. Some team will unfortunately return a positive test, it's nobody's fault, it's just I think inevitable and we just hope it's minimal rather than something that becomes an all too frequent occurrence."

Given all the uncertainty, there is a temptation to label 2020 as the most unpredictable All-Ireland of all. O'Connor is less convinced, arguing that the pandemic has shortened the odds on a familiar winner.

"You look at the limited preparation times. To me, take the four semi-finalists from last year - Limerick, Tipp, Wexford and Kilkenny. They all have the same management teams, the same strength and conditioning coaches, they are all familiar with the game plan, all familiar with the set-up, their puckout strategies," he says.

Questions

"If you were Kieran Kingston coming back in with Cork, Liam Cahill in Waterford, Shane O'Neill in Galway, Brian (Lohan) in Clare, there's still a certain amount you don't know about players. Liam Sheedy, John Kiely, Cody and Fitzy maybe don't have those question marks in the back of their minds - so I think there is a clear advantage to the teams that are established and probably know the bulk of their starting 15."

As a consequence, O'Connor cannot foresee champions emerging from outside that top four, even if Galway "on their day are capable of beating anybody" and Cork "have a lot of pace and legs in that team, they have talent, if they can sort out maybe three and six.

"We all know how close they were to Limerick in 2018, but it's hard to see outside of that top four or five, and I don't think we are going to see surprise winners this year or a bolter coming from the blue."


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