Kicking Out: Questions like 'When is 2.5 seconds actually 22 minutes?' still need answering
FRIDAY evening’s conference call with GAA officials was intended to bring clarity to a hopeful new situation, but left behind as many questions as it did answers.
After almost three months of complete lockdown, the association announced its plans to move towards a return to club games from July 31, and inter-county activity from October 17.
Most were understandably like children on Christmas Eve when the news broke.
It’s been a long stretch without sport to even watch, never mind play, and so any ray of light was going to be welcomed.
In general, the GAA have done a very good job of managing this crisis.
July 31 is 52 days from now. This whole situation has been so fast-moving and fluid that we barely know where we’ll be in five days, never mind the end of July.
Having a plan of action in place is great. For having a target to work towards, players are certainly in a better position now than they were four days ago.
But all of this shouldn’t be misconstrued as meaning in just over six weeks, we’ll be back playing football, hurling and camogie, come hell or high water.
And the mixed messaging from the GAA’s leadership at the weekend means there is still so much to be done and so much to clarify before games can return.
These are a few of the issues that need further clarification before we’re ready to return to play.
DR Kevin Moran said on the GAA’s zoom call that “if social distancing remains two metres, there cannot be contact. I don’t believe it is possible to have contact training.”
John Horan said similar less than a month ago.
So what has changed?
Last week, the GAA released a report it had commissioned Newry-based outfit STAT Sports to conduct on how possible social distancing would be during games and training sessions.
The study found that in an inter-county game, the average number of times a player would have someone else within 2m of them was 539.
The longest continuous spell would be around a minute, though the average was 2.5 seconds.
That became the headline statistic.
Multiply 2.5 seconds by 539 incursions and you get an average of more than 22 minutes per game spent within 2 metres of someone.
For certain players, particularly those in the full-back and full-forward lines, or your Michael Murphys or Peter Hartes of the world who are routinely man-marked everywhere they go, there is a clearly increased risk.
Were there 2.5 seconds in total during their recent meetings when John Small wasn't inside Peter Harte's personal space?
Man markers don’t exactly observe social distancing etiquette.
There will be players who wouldn’t think twice about coughing in someone’s face if they thought it’d put an opponent off their game.
The government’s roadmap will permit the sport to return, and the buzzwords have become about “accepting risk”.
But is it actually safe?
Local pressures on players
GAA clubs can be the tightest units you’ll find in civilisation, but they can also be among the most judgemental.
It’s all good to tell people they can’t be judging a player who decides he’s not comfortable playing.
But given how many soft-tissue issues are still viewed with a deep suspicion, even within the changing room itself, there is almost an inevitability that players who do opt out will be pressurised into playing.
Difference between north and south
THANKFULLY recent weeks have seen Stormont take a grasp of its own situation and move away from the disastrous measures being employed across the water in England.
There is no question that the GAA’s early decision to lock down had an influence in helping the north in that regard.
But the r-number, which gives an indication of how transmissible the disease is through society, remains higher in the north than in the Republic.
The GAA has made its decisions in line with the Irish government’s approach but applied them to the whole island.
When asked about it, GAA president John Horan referred to the R-number in “Britain”, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
What will they do if the Republic of Ireland is in a position to restart by late July, but the north is not?
In terms of club fixtures it is an easier dilemma to solve, but for an inter-county championship there is no show without Ulster.
The idea of an all-island approach to decision-making may be tested if the GAA finds itself having to take its lead from events in the north.
Our proximity and close ties with Britain
THE Dublin-London flight path is one of the busiest in the world.
England have shown very little sign of getting the virus under control between their own borders, recording more daily deaths than the other 27 EU countries combined, but they’ve gone ahead and re-opened society anyway.
Travel between here and there will be one of the biggest threats to Ireland’s continued progress, both north and south.
Not only are the keeping borders open, but employing a unique special status between Ireland and Britain that circumvents the need to quarantine after travel.
While we are hoping to have supporters in stadiums later in the year, professional sports in England seem resigned to empty stadiums for a while to come yet.
New Zealand have laid the template and are aiming for total normality to resume in the coming days, including capacity crowds at sporting events.
But they have recorded no new cases of the virus in the country for two-and-a-half weeks.
That’s the benchmark for normality, but they achieved by completely locking down their borders. Even in removing every other restriction, the borders will remain closed to foreigners.
In a few shorts months, they’ve rid themselves of the virus.
The worry is that we can never get our house in order until England sort theirs.
Level of responsibility placed on clubs
MOST clubs struggle to get a minor manager every year. Trying to get someone to do temperature checks and make sure players complete a questionnaire before every training session seems nearly impossible.
One certainty is that the GAA would push any decision on potentially closing down clubs back on the government.
If a cluster of cases broke out around a town, the club would be under no obligation to shut down.
Say it happens during the club championship, what’s the plan? Does the club go on playing, at threat to its members? Or does it shut down but with no safety net to guarantee that they’ll get to play when things settle?