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Hopes for games to take place this year all but extinguished

CPA's research into player attitudes backs up GAA's return stance

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CLOSE CONTACT: Dublin’s Jonny Cooper gets to grips with Kerry’s David Clifford in last year’s All-Ireland SFC final replay. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

CLOSE CONTACT: Dublin’s Jonny Cooper gets to grips with Kerry’s David Clifford in last year’s All-Ireland SFC final replay. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

CLOSE CONTACT: Dublin’s Jonny Cooper gets to grips with Kerry’s David Clifford in last year’s All-Ireland SFC final replay. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Coming quickly after GAA president John Horan, in the course of his Sunday Game interview, brought clarity to what was obvious anyway, that there could be no consideration of a return to play in contact sports like Gaelic football and hurling (and by extension ladies football and camogie) as long as social distancing on the street and in the workplace was still being implemented.

The Club Players Association provided even more detail yesterday with the specifics of their survey on its members' attitudes.

By any stretch, a poll of over 3,000 (3,008 to be exact) is a very decent take on what any group of people is thinking. And with more than one out of every five respondents declaring that they wouldn't return to training until a vaccine for Covid-19 is in place, and another one out of even five in the 'don't know' category on the same subject, it makes any return to play, even partial, improbable in the short term or even the long term for that matter given the length of time it is going to take produce one, if it gets there at all, in a safe manner.

Even with the provision of temperature checks, only a further seven per cent, 64 per cent, would be prepared to return to training which underlines the level of caution out there.

Strikingly, 27 per cent of those polled said they lived with a relative over 70 or someone with underlying conditions.

Take 20 per cent out of some teams and they just won't be able to function properly. A lift to over 40 per cent would finish a majority of club teams.

As for social distancing, we can probably build that into our lifestyles and interactions for some time to come too, beyond the summer and stretching well into autumn/winter.

Keeping a discreet distance, however short, will be one of the easier restrictions to keep in place, it would appear as a continued guard against the virus at a broader level.

So taking Horan's insistence that the two metres apart protocol, even if it is brought down to one metre at some stage in the future, and the CPA's findings on a return to training, confidence about any return in 2020 has evaporated while even games in 2021, based on the president's social distancing provisions and one-fifth of players holding out for a vaccine, are now under threat by the same reasonable logic.

There is no distinction between club and county games when it comes to contact.

Horan, to his credit, has delivered a clear and concise message on the GAA's position, particularly in relation to the playing of games. No risks need to be taken and no one could argue with that approach, given that they are amateur games.

Where there is divergence of opinion within the GAA, is the continued closure of pitches beyond May 18 and June 9, supplanting the two phases of the Government roadmap announced on the previous week that allowed for sports restrictions to be eased, though the IRFU have followed up by putting off training for its players until June at the earliest.

What was striking however in failing to relax those restrictions was the rationale for them. Horan mentioned volunteers not being burdened with the responsibility of "marshalling" and "policing" the numbers congregating - four from phase one to two and small groups (numbers unspecificed after that) to ensure social distancing remains in place.

"A group of four gathering here and another group of four and all of sudden you had a full squad gathering and then the next thing, after a period of training, you could have a game behind closed doors," predicted Horan, if the gates did not remain locked in the short term.

Quite clearly the GAA still sees a temptation for some to push the boat out too far, if the opportunity presents itself and that pointed to an absence of trust that the Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald referenced last week in an interview with the Irish Independent.

Conflict

Now managers have a poor record when it comes to implementing rules around training that the GAA have introduced, most notably the closed season and prohibition on training camps which brought conflict two years ago before the rules were relaxed again. There's history there going back quite a few years.

But on a public health issue that has gripped the world so acutely, is there really a belief that some managers and players will exploit an opening and drop the guard against the distancing protocols in place, especially if there is now such a limited prospect of games going ahead?

Limited activity

Of course, the picture can change. And in assembling a committee full of experience and expertise the GAA will be able to monitor the conditions for a return to some limited activity where they'll be mindful that not everything has to be predicated on games.

The value, social and physical, of small groups gathering for exercise and retaining some identity as a team - as well as proper distance naturally - shouldn't be underestimated and working on guidelines that allows this to happen in some shape or form, even ahead of a self-imposed deadline would be a first and most important step.