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First contact

We're a long way off return for team sport warns virus expert


Red Bull Salzburg players return to training in Austria wearing protective face masks. Photo: Leonhard Foeger

Red Bull Salzburg players return to training in Austria wearing protective face masks. Photo: Leonhard Foeger

Red Bull Salzburg players return to training in Austria wearing protective face masks. Photo: Leonhard Foeger

One of the country's most prominent medical experts has warned that it will take near elimination of coronavirus or the development of effective treatments to allow any contact sport to be played again in this country.

On the day the Government said all licensed events attracting crowds of 5,000 would not be allowed before September, Professor Sam McConkey told the Herald he couldn't forsee any sport with phyical contact taking place in this country for some time.

However, he predicted that "soon we could be living in a world where there is lots of sport", with social restrictions expected to ease over the coming weeks, although it raises fears that even a return to club-level Gaelic games, soccer and rugby is still a long way off.

"It will be sport specific", explained Prof McConkey. "Take rugby. Physical contact is so intrinsic in rugby, in rucking and tackling and scrummaging...it's really hard to envisage a sport like rugby with social distancing in place.

"I see that things like tennis, single-handed sailing, golf, fishing, cycling and running are all likely to start fairly quickly.

"Whereas things like rugby, I just can't see any way to do it without touching people fairly aggressively".

Stressing he was "optimistic" about the reduction in coronavirus cases due to restrictions of movement, Prof McConkey reiterated that no contact sport could be played while any form of social distancing remains in place.

A vaccine is the most obvious solution although Prof McConkey highlighted the example of New Zealand as proof that almost complete suppression is possible.

What is clear from yesterday's Government statement is the GAA inter-county championships now appear destined to endure a further delay until September, at the very earliest. The FAI and IRFU will also be affected, although not so severely in the short-term, if the latest Government edict banning mass gatherings of over 5,000 at concerts and festivals is ultimately extended to sport.

Yesterday's Government decision refers specifically to events that require a licence, such as outdoor musical festivals. But sources fully anticipate that this ban will ultimately extend to all major sporting events in the Republic.

The GAA declined to comment on this latest development, having received no official correspondence from Government. Rugby chiefs adopted a similar stance, stating: "The IRFU haven't received any information in relation to this announcement so we are not in a position to comment."

The FAI have admitted they need "clarity" from Government on when they can expect a resumption of football activity in Ireland after a day of confusion for sporting bodies.

Initial reports that restrictions on "mass gatherings" after September 1 would only apply to events with crowds bigger than 5,000 gave rise to a belief across the major sporting bodies that events with attendances below that mark could be permitted in some circumstances.

It was later clarified by a Government spokesperson that the measure did not refer to sporting events but the FAI are among the bodies who are unsure of the implications.

"We need to understand what they mean by 5,000 in terms of mass gatherings and whether that applies in stadiums and what are the criteria we would have to comply with," FAI interim CEO Gary Owens said.

Meanwhile, Galway Races officials could be forced to stage the Festival behind closed doors should they get the green light to proceed in July.

With the races worth over €50 million to the city's economy and attracting nearly 150,000 people each summer, having no spectators at the seven-day Festival would be a huge hit.

Manager Michael Moloney believes that forging ahead without spectators "would be for the benefit of the racing industry, our valued partners and our television audiences".