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Nightmare scenario is a race for Sam derailed by localised Covid outbreak

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WARNING: John Horan

WARNING: John Horan

WARNING: John Horan

What happens if Dublin's search for six is derailed not by Kerry, or some other ambitious pretender, but by a pandemic?

What happens if Tipperary's tantalising quest for their first two-in-a-row since the '60s is knocked for six by Covid-19?

These devilishly awkward scenarios were brought to the surface by GAA president John Horan on Sunday afternoon. Not directly - but implicitly - when he said on RTÉ Radio: "We will have protocols in place that if a county goes down, because of the narrow time frame in which we are running the competition, they will just have to step aside."

He cited the precedent of 1941, when Tipperary and Kilkenny were removed from the All-Ireland SHC race because of foot-and-mouth - "and people accepted that."

But that was then; eight decades later is a different universe. And not every observer is convinced that major controversy won't erupt if some heavyweight contenders are KO'd because of a bad outbreak of the virus affecting what used to be termed (when such luxuries were allowed) their dressing-room.

What odds a legal challenge causing further time delays?

Former Dublin manager Tom Carr can see multiple obstacles between now and Horan handing over Sam six days before Christmas. Settling on the "criteria" for how and when a team needs to step aside is just one of them.

"They're going to have to be very, very definite about what is a pull-out situation," he says.

"And if it happens Dublin, and they're going to be the biggest draw, etc, etc … do you want to see a championship go ahead without Dublin, Kerry and, I don't know, Galway?

"How meaningful is it then, and is it an official All-Ireland then if Tyrone win it or Roscommon win it? How does it go on the records?"

Four or five months ago, in the early stages of the pandemic, Carr foresaw major difficulties with completing the GAA's flagship competitions. Now, even as the Croker hierarchy and Taoiseach Micheál Martin sing from the same hymn sheet about the national importance of staging the All-Irelands, he remains sceptical. "I'd be worried," he admits. "I'd love it to happen - don't get me wrong.

"I'd like to look forward to a suite of matches on a Saturday and a Sunday that you can watch on the box, even though it's behind closed doors ... but I just think it's fraught with danger at the minute."

So much so that, if one or two counties fall, "I think the whole thing is going to fall. I don't see how you can meaningfully run a championship by saying we'll play it as a comes and if nobody gets Covid from your county then you can go (on). But again I'm saying what's the criteria?

"So, you have two players whose brother and sister have Covid. Where do you draw the line as to where a county has to step aside?"

In theory, given that the GAA's Management Committee has the ultimate power to run off this unprecedented season as it deems necessary, affected counties may just have to suck it up.

Casual

However, weekend developments on the Dublin club scene highlight another conundrum. Even if a player tests positive, the rest of his team can carry on once they are deemed "casual contacts" - as happened with the Ballyboden St Enda's junior hurlers.

But their opponents, Clanna Gael Fontenoy, were so concerned about the safety ramifications that they declined to fulfil their JHC fixture on Sunday. Barring a committee room reprieve, they lose out.

"You're coming down to everybody's take on Covid - from management to county boards to players," says Carr.

"Not alone could you lose some of the affected team but you could lose some of the 'healthy' team as well, if I can use that phrase."

He continues: "It has bigger ramifications at county level because there's so much logistics involved and money involved, and it's a nationwide thing.

"Never mind even the ramifications of sponsorships, and sponsors thought they were going to get onto the TV on a Sunday afternoon, now they're not ... so do they come back to the county board and say, 'Hey, we'd like that 120 grand back.'

"There are so many things at play here. I think it's a case of they either make a decision to go ahead with the championship and hope for the best - or forget the championship.

"There's too much uncertainty, particularly with the rise again (in cases). At the end of the day, it could come down to not being the GAA's call. It could be NPHET or the Government."