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Handball remains in limbo despite the Government's green light for indoor action

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Martin Mulkerrins: ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes, be that testing or playing behind closed doors'. Photo: Dáire Brennan / Sportsfile

Martin Mulkerrins: ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes, be that testing or playing behind closed doors'. Photo: Dáire Brennan / Sportsfile

Martin Mulkerrins: ‘I am willing to do whatever it takes, be that testing or playing behind closed doors'. Photo: Dáire Brennan / Sportsfile

While the football and hurling seasons have been radically altered, there is still plenty to salvage from the wreckage. For another GAA code, handball, the picture is not nearly as clear.

On Tuesday, March 10 last, Galway star Martin Mulkerrins was in Croke Park for a media launch ahead of the O'Neills All-Ireland 4-Wall Senior Singles final 11 days later in which he was due to take on holder Robbie McCarthy of Westmeath.

Mulkerrins, who won his maiden title in 2018, was in top form. In November, he won his first pro stop in Tucson, Arizona; in January, he picked up second place in another event in Montana and his results on the pre-championship tournament circuit at home were excellent.

"I had put a lot into it. I made life choices, I took a job closer to home to cut down on driving to help my training. I had saved up annual leave to allow me travel all over to compete and it was all about peaking in March. Everything was geared up for that date, that was what it was all about for me.

"Every aspect of my training was coming together. I remember at the launch, there was talk about it but I still thought it might go ahead. And then suddenly it was gone."

The handball season is split into three main codes - 40x20, 60x30 and One-Wall (recently rebranded as wallball). In terms of coverage and crowds, 40x20 is the brand leader and it was that grade which was effectively scrapped just days before the annual Festival of Handball in Kingscourt, Cavan, which was to include all of the main finals.

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"It had a huge effect because we were only a week out from what is our biggest weekend of the year in terms of attendance, in terms of media coverage and exposing our sport. We were looking forward to a massive weekend of games over three days, it is a massive social event as well and has become a staple of our calendar," says GAA Handball's national manager John Kelly.

"To have it cancelled at such short notice was a huge inconvenience to our players who had prepared all year, to the host club and also to ourselves, we had held a launch which went very well, we had got some good media coverage so for all that to stop so suddenly, it was hugely disruptive to everybody.

"We came out of our 40x20 season with it unfinished, we headed into our One-Wall season which was wiped out and we are now going into our 60x30 season.

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"We rely heavily on one or two pinnacle weekends so to have those taken away from us was tough. There is a possibility we will be finishing out those finals in October or November but it won't be the same as having them on that familiar date in March."

Fast forward almost four months and handball has just released its return-to-play roadmap. One-on-one indoor training play will soon be allowed, competitive outdoor handball - which, in reality, is very limited - is permitted from July 20, with a return to competitive indoor handball at county level allowed from August 10.

The frustration Kelly speaks about is real. Handballers have seen more optimistic return-to-play protocols from other codes in the GAA family and some have voiced disquiet.

"The fact of the matter is handball is an indoor sport and football and hurling are outdoor sports. It's a well-known medical fact that you are 19 times more likely to contract the virus indoors than you are outdoors so we were always going to be behind outdoor sports in coming back," says Kelly.

"The difficulty with handball being a GAA sport is that our members saw other strands of the association going back and they were eager to go back themselves. However, last Friday was the first time that the Government and Sport Ireland gave the clearance for indoor sports to come back at all.

"We have an onus to protect our members, our players and anyone involved in the sport. We have many aspects to think about, from our facilities to the age profile of some of our players. It's not as clear-cut as it may seem.

"I think with the nature of the pandemic and the death toll, 90 per cent of people have been very understanding. While they have been frustrated, they have understood it. We have taken this decision based on medical advice from the HSE, the Government and our major funders and partners in Sport Ireland the GAA. We didn't take these decisions lightly."

GAA Handball's stated wish is to complete their major finals. Traditionally, from August on is 60x30 season but with the 40x20 championships still unfinished, uncertainty abounds and the likes of Mulkerrins, McCarthy and ladies senior finalists Martina McMahon and Catriona Casey remain in limbo.

"I understand the need for caution, we all have elderly and vulnerable relatives including in our own family, and I have taken comfort in the fact that we are not alone, even the Olympics were cancelled," says Moycullen clubman Mulkerrins.

"But the football and hurling senior championships are being run off because they are the blue riband events for their sports so I don't think it's unreasonable to hope that our senior 40x20 final will be played. I am willing to do whatever it takes, be that testing or playing behind closed doors, to see that happen."


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