Thursday, February 18, 2021

RECENTLY it was announced the GAA season was not going to resume on 5 March as originally envisaged. Instead, a tentative resumption date, the Easter weekend 4-5 April, has been mooted as a date for a return. Even at this stage, it has not been decided whether club or intercounty activity will start first.

It was the last thing all GAA people wanted to hear. Yet deep down, they know there is no choice. Nationalist Sport went out and spoke to a number of players who were looking forward to a return but are now set to sit it out for a further four weeks at least.

There is a 100% unanimity among all interviewed that the correct decision has been made. Yes, they are disappointed and they articulate this too. Crucially, they say that health and safety comes first, they will continue to do what they have been doing training via on-line fitness sessions or going out and doing their own work-outs and exercises.

When the time is right, they know there will be a return and they are happy to wait. Here are their views.

Ruairi Dunbar (Former Carlow Senior Intercounty hurler and a current Ballinkillen Senior Hurler)

Former intercounty hurler and a two time Christy Ring Cup winner (2008, 2009), Ruairi Dunbar, is probably coming to the end of a glittering career. As a club player with Carlow Town, he won all that he could have at underage level starting with an under 12B championship, under 14 and all the way up to minor and under 21 titles. He won an intermediate hurling championship with the club in 2011 before work took him to Dublin and four years with St Brigids where he picked up a division 2 league medal.

He is still working in Dublin but has been commuting from Ballinkillen since 2017 where he had settled.

Former Carlow hurler Ruairi Dunbar is still going strong for his club
Photo: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

With his new club, he should have had a role to play in the senior county final last year but picked up a hamstring injury in the semi-final against St Mullins.

I was chasing Marty Kavanagh. At my age, I shouldn’t have been doing that,” he says ruefully.

He made every effort to get back for the decider against Rangers but only did more damage to himself. 35 years old in July it was time to make a decision. To keep playing or retire.

The arrival of new coach and Kilkenny hurling legend, Eoin Larkin, to Ballinkillen made his mind up for him. He was not retiring.

No matter what you say the body does let you down. With Eoin there, that swung it,” Ruairi admits. That was back around December. Then everything stopped.

The few sessions we had with Eoin before the lockdown were hard but enjoyable. We started back when the restrictions had been relaxed. We had the pods, time set for training, gym time and Eoin had simple training sessions which were not easy but were really good training.”

Ruairi says the second lock-down is hurting a lot more than the first one.

Totally miss training,” he says.

What we are doing now is 5ks. There are no fields open now and I really miss that. I have to say this lockdown is a different kettle of fish altogether. There is probably a bit of ambiguity about the end line. It is nobody’s fault,” says the former Carlow senior hurler, who says the wording of elite is loosely used.

The previous mention of GAA elite status and now it is not elite causes confusion. There is no definite finish, no definite time to start up again. Then there is the argument whether it is club or is it county first,” he says.

Despite the lack of club facilities to go training, according to Ruairi, this lockdown is vital.

It is all needed. People living close to me have passed away. My father was ill last year. I am really relying on people close to me being careful.”

In the desire to re-open, Dunbar says pressure groups can cloud people’s judgement.

The reality is that everyone can have an opinion but not everyone’s opinion is an informed opinion,” he explains.

Twitter can be a cess pool. The vitriol. The pure conspiracy stuff. They have their own opinions and they are riling people up. They have a stage and I don’t know if it is being used properly. The mass anger does nothing for anybody.”

Dunbar is one of the lucky ones in that he works from home when others don’t have that option. He empathises with those who may be experiencing a sense of helplessness.

Business in Carlow is affected. I can totally see why they want the lockdown ended and it is a real problem for people who can’t put bread on the table.

Meanwhile, Ruairi is keeping his body ticking over. Not exactly what he had in mind when pre-season training had commenced a few months ago.

I had real plans for getting myself right. I had gone back training and felt as fit as I had for years. We have a fundraiser where teams of six are doing 100kms running. It is not fun. Especially in this weather,” he admits.

John Michael Nolan (Carlow and Naomh Eoin senior hurler)

John Michael Nolan, the Carlow and Naomh Eoin senior hurler, is not one to feel sorry for himself. He takes the attitude that it is what it is and is just getting on with it. 5 March was a date he had set in his head. That was the day he was going to be back in the field with his team mates.

Carlow and Naomh Eoin’s John Michael Nolan

Now that date is pushed out to early April. Does it get to him?

I wouldn’t say I am frustrated,” he say,s but the Carlow senior hurler does point out that group training is where he was hoping to be in March. Notice then came the Level 5 restrictions were to be stretched into the rest of the month and part of April.

It is probably the right decision for the health and safety of the players,” John Michael says.

I was put out a bit because we were told Level 5 was going to change on 5 March. We were gearing ourselves up to be hurling strong back on the field. We were getting our fitness done on our own and our gym sessions. We were getting ourselves set but that has been pushed back by another four to five weeks.”

He is handling the situation well.

We are back where we first began if you get me. Mentally we were getting ourselves ready. Only the other day I was ordering hurls and looking forward to the field. This has put a spanner in the works. Personally, with the way the Covid numbers are going at the moment, it is probably the wise choice. It is only an amateur sport at the end of the day. We do it because we love it. We do it in a safe manner,” he says.

Naomh Eoin may be struggling to close a gap to 2005 when they last won a county senior title. Yet, their loyalty to the county is top class as players continue to make themselves available to Carlow at all levels.

We are in regular contact with our club mates. We are getting our bit done for the club as well. It is upsetting for the club too. If we get back to intercounty in April, it is going to push out the club scene by maybe two months for players who are not involved with the county. They are in the same boat and have been back doing their running and exercises. It has a knock-on effect for everyone.”

The Nolan family eat, drink and sleep hurling and football. John Michael’s two sisters, Kate and Breege, need no introduction. They are household names in camogie circles not just in Carlow but across the province. Their sister, Gillian, recently had a baby. For John Michael the motivation to keep Covid from their family is raised even higher.

We are keeping to ourselves. Kate and Breege are doing their bit too with the Zoom calls. Hurling and camogie is a family affair as you know yourself. It is upsetting for them as well.

We are being extra careful as Gillian had a baby boy. As regards isolation now, we are bringing it to an extreme at the moment.”

Rachel Sawyer (Intercounty Dual player and Naomh Bríd Camogie and Old Leighlin Footballer)

When the second lockdown came in October 2020, Rachel Sawyer and Old Leighlin were preparing for a Leinster intermediate club final showdown against Tinahely. The dual intercounty player was also back in Maynooth College and there was a sense of optimism that, perhaps, Ireland was coming out of the pandemic.

Carlow dual star Rachel Saywer
Photo: Adrian O’Neill

Intercounty games survived the rise of infection numbers in the second wave of the pandemic and Rachel was one of the lucky ones who had intercounty hurling and camogie to look to.

The season didn’t have a happy ending for her with the Carlow junior footballers coming ever so close to beating Fermanagh who went on to win the All-Ireland while Antrim ushered the Barrowsiders out of the camogie championship. Sawyer took a full part in both games. Disappointing as those results were, as they headed into 2021 they knew they had performed well so there was much to look forward to. That was what they hoped for anyway. Could she ever have envisaged that club and intercounty fare would be postponed by at least five months? The government confirmed last week that Level 5 restrictions are to last for at least another month.

It is disappointing. I am on a few different teams and have goals for each team. The main goal was to be back on the pitch by March, play matches and it is hard now to have to push those plans out, train from home and train individually. The team aspect is something everyone enjoys and we are not getting to do that at the moment,” says Rachel.

Psychologically, it is a blow and players will have to adapt both physically and mentally.

Everyone was planning for 5 March and with it being pushed out, it makes all the training from home that bit harder and harder to find the motivation to do it now.”

Despite the disappointing news, Rachel joins a long list of GAA players who will do what is necessary to beat the pandemic. They last thing they want to do is let their guards down as carelessness on their parts could contribute to bringing the disease into their social and family contacts.

It has to be done and we are in a situation now where we have to flatten the curve. While we are in it, I don’t see the GAA changing their minds so it is up to us to try and make it better for everyone,” the Maynooth student emphasises.

In the meantime, she is keeping herself fit and well.

I am training away. We have running and strength and conditioning plans which we are trying to keep up with them. We also have club and county programmes so there is always something different to do and to keep up with them.”

Meanwhile the Old Leighlin and Tinahely final is scheduled for 29 May. Again, that is a tentative fixture arrangement in a situation where nothing can be set in stone.

Cormac Mullins (Éire Og senior footballer)

It was a late point from substitute, Cormac Mullins, in the 2017 senior football county final which rescued Éire Óg and arguably set them on their way to three in a row county titles and a subsequent place in a Leinster club final. Rathvilly looked all over winners the first day but there was only going to be one winner next time out.

Éire Óg’s Cormac Mullins

Now almost four years later, the Reds are looking for four-in-a-row championships and Mullins is still there. He admits a possible four on the trot is a motivator but says the stop-start to the 2020 season is hard.

It is a really difficult situation to be going through. You have probably never done as many pre-seasons in the one year. You are left on the hook, given a date. You say that is a target and you are trying to keep yourself fit for then. It ramps up getting closer to the date and then the day is changed, postponed and put out,” he says.

You are tapering off, trying to keep morale within the group. All clubs are in the same position. So are county teams. There comes a point in time where that becomes difficult as well. It is a really frustrating process but I do know, in the grander scheme of things, there are a lot more important things going on,” the Éire Óg forward concedes.

If a nurse or a doctor were to hear me going on like that, they would probably shake their heads. I do know there are more important things going on.”

Mullins is a teacher. He has been involved with successful teams in Carlow CBS. He says no sport and the closure of schools is a double whammy for everyone.

School is a very different place this year. Even when we did get back and it was fantastic to be in the building, it was a very different place. There is a lot that happens in school which is not about the academic. Whether that is sport or any other extra-curricular-to have that taken away from the students and the people who are involved it has a debilitating effect on morale and the atmosphere.

It is pressure on everybody to keep the show on the road. Obviously we are back learning now. That is tough too. You have to be very prepared.”

Mullins maintains the time is right now to go for a different approach at national level.

We are at the stage where the government have to look at doing something for children, students, for everybody. We can’t keep hearing the negativity. We can’t keep hearing it is another four weeks. It is one snow-balling effect and everybody is sick of it now. There has to be a different approach. We can’t keep going like this,” he says.

He says the introduction of the vaccines is not going to be enough on their own.

Initially, there was huge hope and is a hugely, hugely positive thing but that does look now as if it is going to be a slow roll-out. It is not a silver bullet which we may have thought it was.”

Despite his worries, Mullins says the lock-down has put a mirror out in front of us all.

On a positive note, it was a lot of time for a lot of reflection over the last year. If you were of that mind-set you could have got yourself into shape. From an athletes perspective, it was nice that if you had any niggly injuries it was good to take a break. It was nice to come outside of the football bubble and many people used it in that regard,” he says.

It looks as if the numbers are coming down as we go to the summer. I was delighted to get into the spring and see the longer evenings. Hopefully things will start to turn around.”

Josh Moore (Carlow, IT Carlow and Rathvilly senior footballer)

This time last year Rathvilly’s Josh Moore had it all in front of him. He had played with IT Carlow into a Sigerson Cup decider and while they lost it was a great achievement for one of the smaller third level colleges in the country to get there. Throughout that campaign, Moore played his part and his form stayed solid going into the intercounty season. He eventually made five league appearances for Carlow and played in the delayed Leinster senior football championship for his county. On the club front, Rathvilly were flying and when the restrictions were re-imposed in October, they were due to play Palatine in the senior semi-final.

Josh Moore kicking the winning point in last year’s Sigerson Cup semi-final
Photo: ©INPHO/John McVitty

Now one wonders whether last year’s Carlow club championship will ever be completed. There was some hope with a March resumption but that is gone now.

It is frustrating. We are all waiting for a date when we can come back and train together,” agreed Josh.

As a county player he has access to strength and conditioning fitness sessions.

Kieran Nolan (Carlow coach) has a very good programme and is very good at what he does. He has a new programme up six days a week and we get one day off. The strength and conditioning programme changes every week.”

The Rathvilly student says he doesn’t find it hard to stay motivated. A break from on-line study and classes is always welcome.

It would be more enjoyable to do the workout with someone but I would be doing something anyway. I am in college and it is nice to get out of the house. For lads, who are flat-out working I would imagine they would find it hard to come home and do it by themselves,” he says.

In a situation where many people have suffered badly because of the Covid situation, getting back to football whether it is club or county is not the most important goal. At a push, Moore concedes he would love to pull on a Rathvilly jersey and if they were to beat Palatine in the semi-final there is every chance they would be meeting Éire Óg in a decider (the champions face Mount Leinster Rangers in the other semi-final). So what would it be for Moore. Club, county or college first.

I suppose club because we started it and didn’t finish it. We were going well in the Carlow championship and looking to knock Éire Óg off their perch. We would really love to beat them this time. We don’t like seeing them being on top for so long.”

By Kieran Murphy

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