Sport without bubbles ‘very difficult’ says former Down GAA star Martin Clarke

Senior inter-county sides have been instructed by the GAA not to train despite their elite status

The amateur status of the majority of Northern Ireland’s sporting scene means continuing to play amid the current Covid-19 surge is unrealistic, says former Down GAA star Martin Clarke.

The Irish Premiership began a two-week pause last Saturday, while the GAA has forbidden inter-county teams from training until February despite their elite status.

With European Champions Cup rugby fixtures postponed, Northern Ireland’s January sporting schedule has all but ground to a halt.

Of the province’s three ‘big’ sports, only Ulster Rugby have had access to weekly testing since returning to training in June.

Irish Premiership sides will be tested before their scheduled return to matches on 23 January, having played the first three months of the season without.

“Particularly within the GAA and Irish League, these are guys that are working and living within the community. It’s very difficult for them,” former Aussie Rules player Clarke told Sportsound Extra Time.

“In the AFL, nine of the teams re-located from Victoria and moved up to Queensland and lived in golf resorts for 18 weeks.

“That’s a bubble, that’s a hub. They can’t get the virus in or out, they’re tested all the time, nobody comes into the training environment.

“Where we are in the province, there’s no ability for a GAA inter-county team to do that. You can be extra-careful but these are people who are living with vulnerable parents at home, they’re working in schools, etc.”

No choice but for sport to go on backburner

Postponements and cancellations in recent weeks have been reminiscent of the first national lockdown which began in March.

Unlike in the spring, it is hoped that the pausing of most sports will be a case of weeks rather than months.

Ulster Rugby returned to training in June before resuming matches in August, while the Irish Premiership and inter-county Gaelic games did not return until October.

“We kind of had thought then that we were over the bump and there were so many protocols and things put in place to allow the games to proceed in a safe manner and in the most part they did, and that brought a lot of joy to people’s lives,” said Clarke.

“It brought things for people to talk about outside of this period that we’re going through that’s no doubt challenging no matter who you are.

“(But) I don’t think anyone within sport would be in their right mind if they could argue that we need to really put back totally from it now.

“The situation has become so dangerous within the NHS, and whether or not the way sport has been played in Northern Ireland is a massive contributing factor, if there’s one extra case or one extra hospital admission on account of Gaelic games or rugby or Irish League then it’s too many.

“I’ve gone full circle on it, from wanting to see sport proceed and being super-excited to now (thinking) it’s time to pull it for the foreseeable.”

BBC News