GAA Football

GAA's Third Level sector has 'window of opportunity' in 2021: Queen's Aidan O'Rourke

Aidan O'Rourke says students shouldn't be deprived of sport during the pandemic given the low transmission rates of Covid19 outdoors

QUEEN’S University’s Performance Sports Manager Aidan O’Rourke believes the Third Level committee in Croke Park has been too passive in accepting that no games would take place in 2020 - and insists there is a big window of opportunity to kick-start the sector in the opening months of 2021.

While cognisant of the serious threat of Covid19, O’Rourke feels sports bodies need to be more proactive in trying to re-balance aspects of society in the interests of young people's physical and mental health.

The GAA managed to run off its club and county championships in tight time-frames, between July and December with few hiccups, while its juvenile sector has been paused a number of times during the pandemic, and is currently locked down due to the latest round of restrictions expected to last for at least six weeks.

The Higher Education sector within the GAA opted to play no games in 2020 due to the ubiquitous threat of the virus.

O’Rourke disagreed with this approach.

“The Third Level committee just accepted their place – no training, no development and ‘we’ll talk to you next month’ seemed to be how the year developed,” said O’Rourke.

“A month goes by and we’re told not to hold our draws, which was a message in itself. And the last update was telling us: ‘I don’t think there’s a window there for you.’”

With the split seasons coming into play next year and with more good news surrounding the imminent arrival of the Oxford vaccination – a more accessible vaccine than the Pfizer and BioNtech – O’Rourke doesn’t see any reason why Third Level competitions can’t be slotted into the new calendar.

“There’s a brilliant window here because there are so many players who have nothing in the first part of the year [because of the split season, with county going first]. There is an opportunity to run competitions without county players,” said the Armagh native.

“Let’s have eight weeks of league here and four to six weeks of championship between February and April and then let the clubs go. But it seems they’re only interested in the Sigerson Cup and the big games but they don’t see the hundreds of students that play Seconds or Thirds or Freshers’ Seconds. It provides competition and football for so many. That is what university life is about.”

O’Rourke, who oversees the development of all sports on the Belfast campus, has been clearly miffed with the way in which the student population has been treated, especially since September.

“There is nobody lobbying the top table, there is nobody making a case… Back in September/October when ‘elite’ status became important, players in Fitzgibbon met the criteria, as did county U17s and U20s. That was acknowledged but Third Level were told: ‘Yeah, but…’

“It felt like a case of: ‘We haven’t time for you right now.’ So there was no activity and from that everybody got a memo to say: ‘You are not to run training sessions or any activity on your campus.’

“I couldn’t understand the logic of that. You have students on campus, there’s no social life at all, some of them are in Halls of Residence from one week to the next, going to a class and that’s it.

“In fairness to Queen’s, Ladies football and camogie, we told Third Level, this is not right. We held health and well-being programmes. We stayed in pods of 15, non-contact because that was allowed under public health guidance.

“Our students were not being deprived of sport on campus just because some bodies thought we shouldn’t be running training sessions.

“It may end up there are no competitions next season, but that’s out of our hands.”

In an in-depth interview in today’s Irish News, O’Rourke is "in no way complacent" about the threat of the virus, adding: “I’ve family that would be vulnerable to Covid. Every family has risk attached; I don’t want to have Covid at home.

“We’d be diligent about these things. At the end of the day there is only so much you can do and hopefully the vaccines will become prevalent pretty soon. But, ultimately, life has to go on at some point.

“We have to manage living with Covid as we will with the next virus. We just need to develop good habits and good routines – social distancing, washing our hands and using face coverings – I don’t think those things are going to be far away from everyday life going forward, but that doesn’t mean that one broom should sweep all of society to one side.”

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