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There's merit to Cork's softly softly approach

Diarmuid Sheehan Cork's cautious approach to revealing their plans for return to play is quite sensible


Ready to go? A general view of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Éoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Ready to go? A general view of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Éoin Noonan/Sportsfile


Ready to go? A general view of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Éoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Right now we should be in the thick of GAA action as the early rounds of club championship make way for the inter-county stars to strut their stuff and dominate the summer weekends. We all know the story by now as Covid-19 looked to dominate all aspects of our lives, but some green shoots seem to be making their presence felt in all aspects of our lives.

Go back a couple of weeks and few thought that we would get anything like serious action this year never mind a full club and inter-county programme, but recent statements from both the Government and the GAA more than indicate that we are well on our way back to something like pre-pandemic planning.

As the government change the narrative moving returns from phase 4 to 3, Croke Park have moved their stance too as head office begin to gear up for a surprisingly quick return with some aspects of season already decided upon, but not all counties are on the same page.

In Cork, we still await clarity as many vested interests circle the wagons to make sure their corner is covered as the sporting world emerges from its forced hibernation. As of this week it looks like those who thought 2020 would be a total write-off (including myself) were wrong as the pitches around the county reopen to what is being called restricted training. A huge step forward, but still not all the way there.

No contact, plenty social distancing and a host of other measures to be considered, but players can come together (granted in smaller groups) and set about preparing for a season of Sundays.

Players at all age levels and all abilities will be back on the club grass as of now - albeit after going through rigorous return to training protocols that have to be implemented by the clubs they represent.

While most agree that heading back to something like a normal sporting summer is a positive step the finer points of a return to play need to be examined and clarified and that goes for all levels inside the organisation.

In recent days representatives from Cork's senior hurlers came out swinging (obviously not literally) at a meeting with at least one member of the Cork County Executive in an attempt to ascertain just what 2020 will look like for them as the club v county question again rises for its now annual airing.

It appears that the players had concerns that the current plan to run off the county championships, using all the time allotted in the recent roadmap, would lead to a rushed preparation for the All Ireland series, whatever format the club championships in Cork may take.

Players, as well as many supporters outside the wire, believe that if the county championships run all the way to October, 11, with Inter-county starting October 17, then a host of inter-county stars that get on well with their clubs might find themselves rushed into a Munster or All Ireland series with the county that would see them at a serious disadvantage against other counties that can sort out their club scene quicker.

In this regard few could argue that the Cork County Board are in a bit of a pickle as their club competitions have to cater for approximately 250 clubs, which is no mean feat at the best of times, never mind when you are trying to sort it all out in the middle of such a ridiculously short time-frame - eleven weeks.

The board have been thrown a small lifeline with the extra two weeks that have been added to the start of the season by government as of last week which now means that club action can begin on July 17, which gives all of 13 weeks to complete club action - still not an eternity but as one major retailer puts it "every little counts".

The Cork County Board have been holding fire on any announcement outside of stating that they will not release the new dates for the 2020 club championships until after Croke Park have locked down what is happening with the inter-county scene - something that is likely to happen in the coming days - so watch this space.

It must be said that Cork's hurlers aren't the only ones concerned about the return to play plans as the GPA (Gaelic Players Association) came out in recent days to express their concerns at all the recent changes suggesting that money rather than player welfare was driving the scheduling of the inter-county season - in order for the GAA could get larger crowds to attend the inter-county games later into the year when the need for social distancing may be less prevalent.

The GPA met with the GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) to pass on the thoughts of their members from both codes.

Many inter-county players want to go back training with their county as soon as their own club sides have exited their respective county championships, but as of now the earliest that the players are allowed to hook up with their county squads is in September, one month out from the start of the All Ireland series - regardless of the form that series will take.

In Cork, that could keep any number of inter-county players away from the inter-county bubble as the county finals in Cork are likely, as it stands as of now, to run into October - and that is not likely to be acceptable to anyone in Cork looking to end the current inter-county All Ireland drought in either football and hurling.

The mid-September time-frame was nailed down last weekend when the GAA president John Horan confirmed that collective inter-county training can only resume on September 14 without clarifying if the players can return to the County if they have no more interests with their clubs.

Not surprisingly the GPA are a bit miffed about this and are looking for more detail before responding further.

The GPA have also looked for a minimum of a four-week break between completion of every club championship and the first inter-county game, but that again will prove to be a big issue in Cork where there is the likelihood that the break may be as little as two weeks for some Rebels who go all the way with their clubs.

To be fair to the GPA they have attempted to cover as many angles as possible and went to the trouble of consulting with their members on what type of Senior Football All Ireland Championship they would prefer - and while most players would normally prefer the system that has stood the test of time (Provincial followed by the backdoor then the All Ireland series) there is a significant football cohort that would rather a 32-county knock-out in 2020 - just to get the job done.

The GPA also stated that we could see as many as 17% of inter-county players deciding not to play in 2020 because of concerns for their safety in this current Covid world. As we all know the GAA is about much more than the household names as every community in the country vies for their piece of the sporting pie.

In Cork, radical proposals to deal with the underage competitions suggested by Rebel Óg have come to the fore in recent weeks and been met with some scepticism. The organisation came out with a raft of proposals in recent days that were aimed at concluding the underage competitions by the end of September - starting them on August 1.

Rebel Óg also suggested that even aged competitions would take place (Under 12, Under 14, Under 16 and Under 18) with only Minor playing in a championship format leaving the others play out their seasons as leagues.

There are also plans to play the underage hurling and football competitions on alternate weekends with no room for second teams and no postponement of games to be tolerated. The GAA, particularly in Cork are up against it at the moment with the eyes of all member clubs firmly trained on Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Cork GAA has to facilitate more than 10% of all the clubs in the land inside some of the shortest sporting windows imaginable so while patrons may be frustrated at the lack of clarity from the County Board few could really argue that getting the scheduling and formatting right at the first time of asking is the most important thing. There probably isn't time for the board to go back for a second bite at the cherry.

As is the case with all compromises the differing sides in the upcoming discussions will need to take a step back and suck it up for the greater good. 2020 will see losers on all sides, but seeing championship action at all levels is surely the most important thing - especially considering the year that the organisation has had to this point.