Sanctions likely after Dublin players break Covid-19 lockdown rules

GAA released a statement of ‘frustration and extreme disappointment’ over the reports

Dublin players reportedly broke lockdown rules to train on Wednesday morning. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dublin players reportedly broke lockdown rules to train on Wednesday morning. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

The GAA has expressed “frustration and extreme disappointment” at Thursday’s revelations in the Irish Independent that a number of Dublin players had been photographed conducting a non-contact training session at the Innisfails club in north Dublin.

In a statement responding to the developments, “a potential breach of both our own Covid guidelines and those of the Government relating to the restrictions in place around team training,” the association points out: “Less than 48 hours ago, the association reiterated its commitment to these current guidelines and called for continued compliance in the weeks ahead.

“The GAA will pursue the allegations with the units in question at the earliest opportunity and will invoke any necessary disciplinary processes as appropriate.”

Dublin’s get-together took place within hours of the GAA receiving a green light from Government to proceed with intercounty training from April 19th.

In Tuesday’s communiqué president, Larry McCarthy and director-general Tom Ryan warned that anyone doing so would also be dealt with under their own rules and also that such actions could endanger the whole return to play.

“These are hugely welcome developments and allow us finally to begin planning on-field activity for the remainder of 2021.

“However, it should also be noted that these dates are conditional and will very much depend on what happens in terms of the overall Covid-19 picture in the coming weeks. For that reason, it is more important than ever that no collective training sessions are held between now and the Government indicated return dates.

“Breaches in this context will not only be dealt with under our own rules but would likely put the broader plan to return to activity in serious jeopardy.”

So what happens next?

There are six questions.

1. Who was there? A number of players, including Footballer of the Year Brian Fenton, were present but who was running the session? Were any of those present beyond their five-kilometre limit?

2. Manager Dessie Farrell doesn’t appear to be present but was he aware that some of his players were gathering?

3. Who organised it - sent out the first message or made the first call to assemble those present?

4. What happens next? What will be the response of both Dublin GAA and Croke Park?

5. Who will be punished? Initially the GAA suggested last June that county officials would be suspended if their teams breached regulations. Breaches in January when Cork and Down footballers gathered resulted in sanctions with managers Ronan McCarthy and Paddy Tally getting 12- and eight-week suspensions.

In this case it may well be time to suspend players, particularly as a deterrent.

6. Will this impact on the GAA’s return to play? The Government went out on a limb to approve the resumption of intercounty training from April 19th but like all such measures it is subject to constant review.

Like the Dublin session, Cork’s and Down’s were clearly caught. McCarthy and players were pictured on the beach in Youghal whereas Tally’s team meeting came to the attention of the PSNI.

Down were however not prevented under public regulations but in clear breach of GAA rules. Cork were under the impression that they were allowed gather by the GAA’s ‘elite sport’ exemption but that turned out later in January to have been withdrawn.

Dublin, however, could have been under no illusions that they were permitted to go ahead, especially as the GAA had issued such a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday.

As defined by the rule, “Collective training is where one or more player(s) is/are required to be at a specific place at a specific time on a specific date. Intercounty panels may return to collective training and/or games for the following year on a timetable determined annually by the Central Council.”

McCarthy and Tally were charged under Rule 7.2 (e), discrediting the association, which carries a minimum eight-week suspension. Both unsuccessfully contested their bans but it’s hard to see Dublin doing this, depending of course on the suspensions.

In the circumstances the GAA may well move to discipline players, as the scale of “discrediting the association” is considerable.

Speaking to this newspaper about reports of the Cork and Down breaches earlier this year, Feargal McGill, Croke Park’s Director of Player, Club, and Games Administration, was unsparing about such behaviour.

“It’s the most disappointing thing I’ve seen in nearly 20 years of administration,” he said. “It shows us the governance challenges we face in the future trying to give players a better deal.

“We’re looking at meaningful close seasons and split seasons but if people can’t follow these guidelines about limiting activities in the face of a pandemic in order to protect their own players and communities, it shows the difficulties we can expect in securing compliance in a normal year.”

In these circumstances both Dublin and the GAA have an interest in moving quickly. Should players be charged and found to be in breach of rule, their suspensions will be for a minimum of eight weeks with every likelihood that longer bans will be enforced.

It will be in Dublin’s interests to start the clock ticking as soon as possible, which would appear to rule out lengthy contesting of any penalties.

There may well also be a case to answer for Dessie Farrell as manager even if he wasn’t present, given that the gathering was at Innisfails club in north Dublin, a venue used by the county for winter training and team meetings.

It was where, for instance, former manager Jim Gavin announced his retirement in November 2019.

The presence of an unidentified coach running the session also suggests that it wasn’t simply a kick-around.

The scale of the reputational damage is considerable. Former GAA president, Seán Kelly expressed as much on Newstalk Breakfast this morning.

“If it is true it is surprising and very disappointing, especially coming from the six-in-a-row Dubs. There is a responsibility with that accolade to give good example.

“Every club and every county in the country are probably frustrated they can’t get back out on the field but there is a roadmap there; the GAA have outlined the guidelines and everyone will have to stick by them.

“I think the GAA will certainly have to look at it very strongly and you have to be consistent in the way you apply the rules. They apply to everybody, whether you are All-Ireland champions or just at the bottom of the ladder.

“This is a serious situation and hopefully it was a once-off breach that won’t happen again because if it goes without some form of formal sanction then others will say why can’t we do the same?

“So, it has created a very difficult dilemma for the GAA.”

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