GAA return to play suspended indefinitely on Government guidance
April return at the earliest as elite Gaelic games not allowed under new Level 5 restrictions
The return of Gaelic games activity might be put back to April. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The GAA’s return to play has been suspended indefinitely and to April at the earliest. This news has emerged after an emergency meeting on Wednesday of the GAA’s Covid Advisory Group and on foot of a meeting earlier this week between the association, women’s Gaelic games organisations and Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers.
The bodies were informed that under the revised ‘Living with Covid’ guidelines to be issued the week after next, elite Gaelic games will no longer be allowed under Level 5 restrictions.
A letter to clubs and counties from GAA president John Horan and DG Tom Ryan, states:
“It was also clear that there will not be any change to this position post-March 5th when the restrictions currently in place are reviewed.
“It is the view of the GAA’s Covid Advisory group that no on-field activity will be permitted – training or games – until Easter at the earliest. In the interim, it is expected that the Government will publish an updated ‘Living with Covid’ plan and we expect that this will provide clarity on when clubs and counties are likely to be allowed return to training and games in 2021. It should also provide clarity on when other off-field club activities may be permitted to resume.”
With no sign of relaxation to Level 4 on the horizon, GAA officials are resigned to county teams not being allowed to resume training until April at the earliest, which means that fixtures are unlikely until later that month or May.
The letter acknowledges that this development will have major knock-on effects on the scheduling of the 2021 season, which had been envisaged as comprising five weeks of National League, followed by Championship.
Given that everything has become so uncertain, the GAA will not be in a position to amend its schedules until clarity emerges concerning the restrictions on Gaelic games but there is a note of optimism struck:
“With your help we are certain that we will eventually have a fulfilling season at both club and county level in 2021, just as we had in 2020.”
As things stood, Gaelic games at senior intercounty level were in fact allowed to proceed but there had been caution about resuming activities given the scale of the pandemic’s third wave and the current restrictions on different sectors, such as education.
GAA officials had, though, hoped to be able to green-light a start for intercounty training around March 5th, when the Government is due to review the Level 5 status.
An emergency meeting of the association’s Covid Advisory Group was convened on Wednesday evening. Members of the group, which negotiated the return to play last summer, have been correspondingly more careful about returning to play at present but a suspension of these dimensions had not been anticipated.
When Level 5 was introduced last October, the GAA initially assumed that Gaelic games would not go ahead, particularly as days before the intercounty season was about to resume both Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath emphasised that at Level 5 there would be no exemption for intercounty activity.
Yet on the specific recommendation of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), Gaelic games did get the go-ahead for senior intercounty matches, which continued throughout Level 5 and beyond until the All-Ireland championships were complete.
Regarded as a success, the matches were played behind closed doors and passed off without incident – apart from the early withdrawal of the Sligo footballers because of incidents of coronavirus and the knock-on effect of close contact.
Croke Park are likely to be nonplussed at the Government decision to draw a distinction between pre-Christmas and now. Covid case numbers are actually lower now than at the time of the October return to play.
Any argument that intercounty GAA activity is different because, unlike professional sports, teams are unable to withdraw to isolated ‘bubbles,’ as is the case with the international rugby team, currently participating in the Six Nations championship, is unconvincing given that the counties didn’t ‘bubble’ before Christmas.
Furthermore, soccer’s League of Ireland – which is not universally full-time – is due to resume in March, which means that any argument that intercounty activity, training or fixtures, poses a specific risk is inconsistent, particularly given the impact of lockdown and working from home on the ability to move around and congregate.
If the new Government policy is to last as long as the GAA believes will be the case, there will have to be a major rethink on the shape of the season, which is already nearly a month behind schedule, as pre-season collective training was due back on January 15th.