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Explainer: What the Government's five-phase plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions means for Irish sport

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The GAA's Croke Park headquarters. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The GAA's Croke Park headquarters. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

The GAA's Croke Park headquarters. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Ireland's major sporting bodies have been given a vital lifeline in their efforts to salvage this year’s major competitions.

And the GAA received a huge boost late on Friday night when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that “there’s a possibility of an All-Ireland (happening) this year”, albeit with heavily- limited crowd capacity.

The roadmap for the return of sport in Ireland was laid out by the Government Friday night which could see the return of golf as soon as May 18 but “close physical contact” like rugby will have to wait until August 10 before any action is seen.

In total there are five phases as part of the overall plan to reopen Irish society and the economy which may see Gaelic Games and soccer resume on July 20 as part of the fourth phase of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

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While all phases are naturally dependent on the public health picture continuing to improve, the rollout gives a flicker of hope that an inter-county Championship could at least start by the end of the year.

According to the plan, phase four allows for “sports team leagues (for example soccer and GAA), but only where limitations are placed on the numbers of spectators and where social distancing can be maintained.”

While that social distancing refers to crowds it still doesn’t explicitly address the potential risks involved in engaging in a contact sport such as Gaelic football, hurling, Ladies football and camogie which is, just under three months from now, something some players are likely to have reservations about.

While Friday night’s announcement has also improved the chances that League of Ireland football can return this summer, the FAI have told stakeholders to prepare for a scenario where fans do not return to grounds until 2021.

Meanwhile, Horse Racing Ireland are “awaiting clarification” from Government officials today about the resumption of Irish racing amid confusion around its timeline of Friday's document.

Racing falls under the Department of Agriculture’s remit, though, and hopes are high within the industry that they can meet the criteria needed to return on May 18 having had ten successful behind the closed doors meetings in March and positive Cabinet discussions on the matter earlier this week.

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Golf courses are hoping to reopen after May 18. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Golf courses are hoping to reopen after May 18. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Golf courses are hoping to reopen after May 18. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Irish Guineas meeting on May 23/24 holds a slim chance of getting the green light with the first two Irish Classics likely to be rescheduled for later in the season while the Irish Derby on June 27 is also in question with different sports affected by different phases announced on Friday.

PHASE ONE - From May 18

The Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish Ladies Golf Union welcomed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s confirmation that golf courses can reopen on a restricted basis.

The governing bodies plan to issue a detailed protocol for a safe return to the fairways for the first time since March 24 but initially, play will be limited to members only and competitions will not be permitted.

Clubs in Northern Ireland remain closed but the governing bodies insist they will continue to work with the UK authorities and the Northern Ireland Executive to seek the safe resumption of golf for clubs north of the border.

The GUI and ILGU have also asked clubs to refrain from opening timesheets for booking until the protocol is published, as it will contain vital information on group sizes and timesheet intervals.

PHASE TWO - From June 8

The second phase, scheduled for June 8, will include small sports team groups being allowed to engage in non-contact outdoor sporting and fitness activities for training purposes only.

PHASE THREE - From June 29

The third phase, scheduled for June 29, will then allow "behind closed doors" sporting activities to take place where participants will maintain social distancing.

PHASE FOUR - From July 20

Most League of Ireland clubs remain opposed to closed door games due to concerns about the finances and the ability to make it safe for the protagonists with the FAI yet to provide details of the support package from FIFA which is supposed to offer reassurances.

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A general view of Richmond Park, Inchicore, home of St Patrick's Athletic. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

A general view of Richmond Park, Inchicore, home of St Patrick's Athletic. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

A general view of Richmond Park, Inchicore, home of St Patrick's Athletic. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

However, in conference calls yesterday, Abbotstown officials outlined that closed doors football could be the only option for 2020 with the better case scenario involving the gradual admission of supporters towards the end of the year.

That went down well with those players and managers who want to get back to work quickly.

But that ultimately remains a hypothetical scenario with the FAI asserting that the HSE and government would have to fully approve any guidelines put together for a return to training and playing built around the facilities and resources available in the League of Ireland.

Clubs will ultimately have the final say over whether they are comfortable about seeking that permission, with the FAI telling officials and player and referee representatives that they should be looking at the practicalities of closed or restricted matches from a long term perspective - and not just from a short term point of view.

The FAI also have to look at government announcements in the context of international matches, although it emerged earlier this week that FIFA are contemplating shelving the September and October windows meaning it could be November before Abbotstown have to explore the feasibility of staging a fixture in the Aviva Stadium.

The GAA has already informed counties that club activity will take precedence when restrictions are eased and the expectation now is that counties will press ahead with revised championships that will take place over the following months.

“Until they declare that contact sport is safe we won’t be playing games and if and when we do return the club scene will be our priority where 98 per cent of our activity is. Club level includes all our inter-county players so as we are looking at it at the moment,” GAA president John Horan stated on Monday.

Some of the bigger counties would require at least a 12-week window to complete straight knock-out championships that allows for alternation between hurling and football.

That could potentially see many counties complete their programmes by the end of October or early November.

And inter-county programme could not start straight away however with a consensus that a a three to four-week pre-season will be required.

That could open the way for an inter-county championship to start sometime in late November/early December. The Government have already announced that gatherings in excess of 5,000 are banned until September.

The GAA has already outlined to its counties that a straight knock-out format, based on the existing provincial championship draw, is the most likely format, taking a minimum of eight weeks to complete. The club provincial championships are likely to be sacrificed

Under the phased plan GAA pitches will be able to open on May 18 with groups of four permitted to exercise, as long as social distancing is maintained.

That would allow both club and county teams, provided they are within the new 5km exercise limit, to convene for some form of fitness work.

PHASE FIVE - From August 10

The IRFU also welcomed Friday night’s announcement although plans for players to return to the provinces to train on May 18 may have to be revised.

A union spokesman said: “The IRFU welcome the plan set out by the government and will review its implications for our players, clubs and employee group.”

One scenario could see provincial squads split into two groups of around 25 players, with one training in the morning and the other in the afternoon after the set-up has been cleaned thoroughly.

With the Guinness PRO14 likely to be cancelled due to the logistical challenges of restarting a cross-border competition, the IRFU could host an inter-provincial series in August to restart the games.

Online Editors