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Games loom but war not over yet

Covid is not a typical sporting enemy, so GAA must stay alert

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HELPING HAND: Monaleen GAA player David Power delivers shopping to The Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, including (l-r) Sister Alice Culhane, Sister Breda Conway and Sister Denise Maher in Milford, Limerick. GAA clubs nationwide help out their local communities during restrictions imposed by the Irish Government in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. GAA facilities reopened on Monday June 8 for the first time since March 25 with club matches provisionally due to start on July 31 and intercounty matches due to to take place no sooner than October 17. Photo: Sportsfile

HELPING HAND: Monaleen GAA player David Power delivers shopping to The Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, including (l-r) Sister Alice Culhane, Sister Breda Conway and Sister Denise Maher in Milford, Limerick. GAA clubs nationwide help out their local communities during restrictions imposed by the Irish Government in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. GAA facilities reopened on Monday June 8 for the first time since March 25 with club matches provisionally due to start on July 31 and intercounty matches due to to take place no sooner than October 17. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

HELPING HAND: Monaleen GAA player David Power delivers shopping to The Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, including (l-r) Sister Alice Culhane, Sister Breda Conway and Sister Denise Maher in Milford, Limerick. GAA clubs nationwide help out their local communities during restrictions imposed by the Irish Government in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. GAA facilities reopened on Monday June 8 for the first time since March 25 with club matches provisionally due to start on July 31 and intercounty matches due to to take place no sooner than October 17. Photo: Sportsfile

A positive Covid-19 test on the cusp of the Premier League's surreal comeback last Wednesday; a suddenly soaring 'R' rate in Germany; and a postponed Aussie Rules match with an Irish twist … what has all this got to do with the GAA's accelerated return-to-play roadmap?

Hopefully, nothing.

But these three disparate case studies of an unidentified Arsenal player, a spike in German cases and the saga of Conor McKenna's travails Down Under should act as a salutary reminder that the coronavirus is not your typical, ultra-predictable sporting opponent, easily identified and just as easily eradicated.

Or, to paraphrase GAA president John Horan, it's a lot more resilient than a melting snowflake.

Croke Park announced its latest, updated guidelines last Saturday on foot of recommendations from its Covid-19 Advisory Committee.

The headline dates were tomorrow (a return to non-contact adult training on club pitches); this Saturday (a return to the above for minor and younger age groups); next Monday (a return to full contact training and challenge matches); and Friday, July 17 (the resumption of competitive club fixtures).

The return dates for inter-county training (officially September 14, for those credulous enough to envisage wholesale compliance) and inter-county competition (October 17) remain unchanged.

So far, so promising. We're just three-and-a-half weeks from our first competitive match since Leo announced the lockdown, or Noah built the Ark, whichever. But then, three-and-a-half weeks is a long time on Planet Covid.

Just six weeks ago, most GAA stakeholders appeared resigned to no matches at all in 2020 when Horan declared: "If social distancing is a priority to deal with this pandemic, I don't know how we can play a contact sport."

That chill Sunday Game announcement came after the Government had published its original phased roadmap for the easing of restrictions.

Since then, Irish infections and fatalities have kept falling and the feelgood factor around a return of sport has kept rising. Along with, of course, a mounting impatience to open the club gates and be done with it.

Complacency

Against the backdrop of the Government's own roadmap acceleration, Horan delivered a more upbeat message on Saturday - but one laced with a warning that there is no "room for complacency".

"People need to realise that the pandemic is still alive in parts of the world," he told GAA.ie. "It has been suppressed here in Ireland, but it is not like the snow in that it has melted away and it is gone forever."

Proof of this is everywhere. Germany has been held up as a model of Teutonic efficiency it its handling of the pandemic, all of which helps to explain why the Bundesliga was the first major European soccer league to resume.

But now Angela Merkel is grappling with a sharp rise in the reproduction or 'R' rate - up from 1.06 last Friday to 2.88 just two days later.

Officials have mostly linked the rise to local outbreaks, including one at an abattoir … but it's safe to surmise that everyone here, GAA obsessives included, will probably spend the rest of this week keeping a fretful eye on Germany's 'R' rate. Because if it can happen to them ...

The UK's approach to all things Covid has been, well, less than Germanic; but money talks and the Premier League returned six days ago.

Not without a hitch though - and we're not talking Hawk-Eye either. Three Arsenal players couldn't train ahead of their defeat at Manchester City after one had tested positive and reportedly came into close contact with two others.

Under Premier League protocols, all three went into self-isolation. They showed no symptoms and subsequently all three tested negative, allowing them to resume training on the day before Arsenal's first match back.

But it begs the question: what happens here if one or more players from the same county test positive on the eve of a championship clash?

Will he or they automatically stand down? Presumably, yes. Might the entire squad go into self-isolation? Will their county be granted a postponement, given the tight window?

Such a problem has already surfaced in Australia where Conor McKenna became the first player to contract Covid-19 since the AFL returned.

This story resonates here because McKenna is a Tyrone native touted for a future Red Hand return. There is plenty of intrigue too, given reports that McKenna could be facing a suspension for allegedly breaking lockdown rules - and also that his case has been investigated to examine the possibility of a false positive.

Either way, what cannot be disputed is the consequent disruption. McKenna (who is asymptomatic) tested negative on Wednesday but returned a 'low-level irregular result' after training on Friday and then tested positive on Saturday, forcing the postponement of Essendon's game against Melbourne.

The complications don't end there. Fellow defenders who came into contact with McKenna during Friday's session could be forced into two weeks of isolation and Essendon could be much depleted for next weekend's game against Carlton - presuming it now goes ahead.

If the AFL gets lucky, this will be an isolated outbreak causing relatively minor disruption. But if not? Therein lies the Covid crux for every sport, not just Aussie Rules.

The GAA has generally excelled in this crisis. It is only right now to make plans for club and county, the latter to be unveiled imminently.

But those plans will only be as durable as Covid ordains. The hidden enemy hasn't gone away, you know ...