The GAA is now looking at a May start to the National League, at the very earliest, following last night’s announcement of continued Level 5 Covid restrictions until April 5.
As expected, there was no change to the status of sporting activity over the next six weeks, although there was some confusion after the official document supplied by the Government grouped elite sport along with the playing of inter-county Gaelic Games, permissible at Level 4, apparently in error.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin clarified: “The levels are a continuity from the old plan. There’s no question of that. There may be an issue with the transmission of that. But there’s no issue with the playing of elite sports.” Any tightening of restrictions on elite sport would have put a halt to Ireland’s Six Nations, as well as the beginning of the League of Ireland season and horse racing.
The Taoiseach did, however, raise hopes that the GAA season could begin in May, as could a return to non-contact training for juveniles.
Speaking about the next stage of the government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan, the Taoiseach insisted that: “a review will look into the possibility of allowing some outdoor gatherings, some sport, construction and an increase of the 5km travel limit.
“We will then look at, coming up to the fifth of April, what more we can do in relation to some sports and other activities. And we will wait until the week before the fifth of April to make an assessment on that.”
Any step down to Level 4 would precipitate a return to collective training for inter-county teams, while juveniles would also be allowed to train in pods under non-contact rules.
It is expected that county teams will be given a four-week pre-season before beginning their respective league campaigns in a condensed programme of fixtures, yet to be finalised.
In that scenario, the first inter-county matches of the season would take place on either the Bank Holiday weekend in May or the weekend of May 8/9.
There has been a growing campaign to grant managers a longer pre-season, backed by some members of Croke Park’s Covid advisory group, but given the scale of delays already and the GAA’s commitment to providing clubs with a substantial window in which to run their competitions, such a concession is unlikely. The situation is complicated for the GAA by the possibility that counties in the North will be subject to alternative arrangements when the British government begin to ease their limits on activity and movement.
Meanwhile, League of Ireland teams are back in training and friendlies began over the weekend ahead of the March 19 start for the Premier Division. The First Division and Women’s National League begin a week later.