Handball calendar slashed over fears in leading counties

After a four-month long hiatus, the last of the GAA codes to resume activity got back underway yesterday as clubs across the country opened their doors again, albeit under restrictions.
Handball calendar slashed over fears in leading counties
Handball Training at Multyfarnham GAA, Co. Westmeath 

Competitive handball activity looks set to be greatly reduced for the remainder of 2020 after a number of leading counties indicated a reluctance to host championship matches due to fears around the spread of Covid-19.

After a four-month long hiatus, the last of the GAA codes to resume activity got back underway yesterday as clubs across the country opened their doors again, albeit under restrictions.

And while there was joy and relief among the 10,000-strong membership, it was tempered by the fact that the number of All-Ireland grades on offer this year looks set to be slashed due to time constraints and safety concerns at grassroots level in some leading counties.

While football, hurling and rounders have all returned in recent weeks, handball found itself in a difficult position due to it being primarily an indoor game. GAA Handball published its roadmap for returning to play a fortnight ago, with yesterday the key date for a resumption of indoor play, on a one-on-one training basis only.

Covid-19 signage on the door of handball practice at Multyfarnham GAA, Co. Westmeath. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Covid-19 signage on the door of handball practice at Multyfarnham GAA, Co. Westmeath. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

However, competitive handball at national level will be on hold until August 31.

The difficulties facing the sport are exacerbated by the fact that there are three main codes — 40x20, 60x30 and One-Wall (recently rebranded as Wallball). The 40x20 season traditionally reaches its climax in March and, in fact, all grades were down to All-Ireland finals, which were scheduled just a week after all GAA activity was suspended.

The challenge facing the sport’s administrators now is to run off their 60x30 championships, which traditionally culminate at the same time as the football and hurling All-Ireland finals, before returning to complete the unfinished 40x20 grades later in the winter.

“We are hoping that the two pinnacle championships, the 60x30 Senior Singles and the 40x20 Senior Singles, will be played. 

"We will be starting with 60x30 and it will probably have to be a reduced championship because there are a lot of clubs out there who just aren’t comfortable hosting fixtures at the moment,” GAA Handball’s National Manager John Kelly told the Irish Examiner.

“We will be working on a reduced venue list and time is limited as well. We will have reduced championships but the Senior Singles are sacrosanct, they are our flagship events.” 

A hand washing/sanitising station outside Multyfarnham GAA club.Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
A hand washing/sanitising station outside Multyfarnham GAA club.Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

It is understood that each handball county board has been contacted and several have indicated an unwillingness to host championship matches. Added to the concerns regarding doubles play and Masters handball (GAA Handball run All-Irelands right up to Over 70s), it all adds up to a hugely reduced programme of competitions for the remainder of 2020.

“Our two key aims for returning to competitive play is to get our major championship finals played, whether that is in front of a crowd or not, that is to be decided.” 

Doubles is arguably the most popular form of the game from a participation point of view but will also be shelved for this year.

Handball Training underway at Multyfarnham GAA, Co. Westmeath. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Handball Training underway at Multyfarnham GAA, Co. Westmeath. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

“If it is feasible to run doubles, we will take a look at it but at the moment we are concentrating on singles for obvious reasons, there are less players in the court and less risk of spreading the virus.

“After that, we are looking at getting juveniles back. We want to provide as much handball as we can for them in as safe an environment as possible, they are the ones we really need to keep involved in the sport and if we don’t offer them a chance to play handball, they will naturally drift into other games which are open to them.”

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