The Irish government may yet give the GAA the go-ahead for inter-county action in April after confirmation last week that Gaelic football and hurling had lost their elite status in the current Level Five lockdown restrictions.
The shock news, announced by Croke Park authorities on the back of a meeting with Sports Minister Jack Chambers, has been met with disbelief by many commentators after the GAA were allowed to finish their All-Ireland series last December.
Racing, professional rugby, and senior League of Ireland soccer will continue in Level Five but GAA is banned, although government sources have confirmed that this is now under review again as Taoiseach Micheál Martin prepares to announce what happens next when the current lockdown is due to end on Friday, March 5.
Addressing the issue on RTE Radio on Saturday, outgoing GAA President John Horan said the inability of county squads to work in isolation and in Covid-19 bubbles was behind the government decision to remove elite status from Gaelic football and hurling.
“I asked the minister the question directly, ‘Were we included in the present elite status?’ He said we weren’t because the present elite status categorized was those sports that could operate within a bubble, and the GAA obviously wouldn’t be able to function in such a manner,” said Horan.
“If you look across the three associations there would be 106 teams there at senior inter-county level — that would be a multiple of about 5,000 players. They all work within the community and we’ve all seen that throughout the winter.
“If you go back to our record last year we were always safe and responsible in the decisions we made in terms of return to play. Sometimes we moved at a slower pace than NPHET or the government were recommending.
“We have an appetite to go back and play the games but we feel, as both a management committee and the Covid advisory committee, that it’s not safe and it wouldn’t be responsible to go back at the moment, such is the level of the virus within society.”
Asked about the effect of this latest setback on the fixtures program for 2021, Horan added, “There possibly will have to be an alteration made to the program that was laid out for the full year this year. The time frame in which we have to operate the competitions will be reduced.
“I’m confident they will happen. We had that flexibility last year and we have that capability. We will devise meaningful programs, both for our club and inter-county players, when we get the opportunity to come back.”
Football and hurling bosses have reacted with dismay to the news that their players won’t know until the end of this week at the earliest when they may be able to return to training.
Waterford hurling manager Liam Cahill was critical of the lack of communication around the elite status removal when he spoke to RTE Radio on Saturday. He said, “I’d be disappointed with the correspondence over the last couple of days. We were led to believe, and I for one was fairly sure, that our elite status was to be maintained. I was not aware that status had been taken away.
“To be honest, it’s not really a big issue over when we return to play but it’s the lack of communication that has led to the frustration that’s being vented at the moment.
“It’s a lonely spot for inter-county players at the moment when they have no real date to work towards. Correspondence did come to say that — and I can’t remember the exact quote from Tom Ryan — a March return would be possible. You’re always clinging to that and you’re always hopeful that’ll be the case.
“If it goes to April or May, so be it, but just try and give us some sort of a pathway to work with.”
The latest news means the National Leagues in football and hurling won’t start as planned in late March, but Tipperary football team boss David Power wants the leagues to be played in the summer before any delayed Championship season.
Munster title winner Power said, “I think the league has to happen in some shape or form. Just from a football point of view, I think 90 percent of counties, the League is nearly more important than maybe the Championship in many ways.
“So I think the League really has to happen and I think it would be very fair in terms of playing the League maybe in May or June and then it will be like last year, club in the summer and then come October time they’d be back with the county.
“I wouldn’t have any issues with that but for us now we just need dates because all the players are on different programs at the minute and we’re trying to keep them motivated, but it’s very hard to keep the players motivated at this moment in time when ultimately we have no dates.
“And I know to be fair to the GAA and the government, no one really knows either but it’s tough-going from that point of view. But I find it hard giving out about that when I see the program there on Monday night and it is kind of frightening so we have to take it all in some perspective.”