Rathgar, C of I and Harlequins opt against travel over Covid concerns

Rathgar’s men, Cork C of I’s women and both Cork Harlequins teams have opted against travelling for their respective out-of-province games over Covid-19 concerns. 

While all 26 counties in Ireland have been elevated to Level 3 in the framework of restrictive measures, elite sport is exempt from such measures and can go ahead as planned. 

In consultation with Sport Ireland, the EY Hockey Leagues, the Irish Senior Cup and the top leagues in each province – including the top two leagues in Leinster – have been deemed elite. 

As such, it means the top end of the club game continue as originally scheduled while clubs who do not travel are subject to Hockey Ireland rules.  

Rathgar decided against travelling to Belfast. Pic: Adrian Boehm

In the Irish Senior Cup, this is rule 13.1 which states that clubs not fielding will be deemed to have forfeited the tie. For the EYHL, a 5-0 defeat is the listed punishment but Hockey Ireland is open to receiving submissions to explain individual decisions before making a final judgement. 

Gar were due to play Instonians in Belfast but stated, that, in consultation with their club committee, they have “decided not to travel to Northern Ireland this Saturday to play the Irish Senior Cup fixture against Instonians. 

“The trend of increasing C-19 cases in NI has been a concern. The health and safety of our members and their families is paramount.” 

Cork C of I’s women will not be travelling to Corinthian for their Senior Cup tie. Team manager Sarah Jones told The Hook of their reasons, stating: “We have not taken the decision lightly but must consider player welfare, health and safety. 

“Four of our players are frontline workers with the HSE. Cork University Hospital yesterday asked their staff to reduce their contacts and those who are from Dublin and Belfast were asked not to go home.   

“We also have a Covid positive player, so you can understand how our players are reluctant to break Government Guidelines and travel.   

“While I commend Hockey Ireland in gaining Elite Sport status, they are irresponsible in their decision with expecting a Division 1 team to travel when, we, at this level do not have access to weekly Covid check as rugby, soccer etc have and are professional/semi professional players.  

“[It is unfair] to expect each player to drive, play a game possibly in the rain, get back into the car without access to changing facilities and no refreshments then drive back to Cork without stopping and possibly be stuck in the Garda checks.” 

C of I’s decision is an interesting one as their men’s team will go to play Portrane in their Irish Senior Cup round one game. 

The club’s management – which oversees both men’s and women’s section – said they “are extremely unhappy that our players have been put in this position. They are not in favour of either team travelling at this time. However, they have generously but reluctantly allowed the decision to be made by the players”. 

As such, the men travel but have agreed to undertake the following measures which are intended to reduce the risk of infection in addition to standard Sport Ireland guidelines. These include: 

  • Reducing squad numbers travelling 
  • Limiting non-playing persons travelling 
  • Minimising car sharing (complying with best practice where it is unavoidable) 
  • No stops on journey 
  • No showers at away club 
  • No training on Tuesday and Thursday following return 
  • No person who travels may coach any other team or junior section in the club in the coming weeks. 

Cork Harlequins’ men were due at Railway Union on Saturday but Richard Gash stated their reasons against travelling. 

“Given the substantial increase in the number of Covid-19 cases across Ireland, after careful consideration the players have collectively decided not to travel for the ISC match agains Railway Union. While a difficult decision to make, we feel this is entirely justifiable and the correct course of action given the serious situation outlined by public health officials over the weekend.  

“As a club, we have a duty of care towards our members and need to be mindful that hockey is just one aspect of their daily lives; it is incumbent upon the club to minimise the additional risks posed to themselves and their families if they were to travel. 

Cork C of I requested a postponement to their Irish Senior Cup date with Corinthian. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“We are communicating with Hockey Ireland and are mindful of the guidance issued to Hockey Ireland by the Government’s Return to Sport Expert Group which has told all sports that competition should be on an opt-in basis and that athletes are not be penalised if they wish to opt-out of activity.  

“While we understand that on this occasion we may have to forfeit the match, we are hoping that Hockey Ireland will take the Government’s advice on board and we won’t be unduly punished for this decision, which we feel is in the best interest of our players and their families.” 

A Thursday night meeting said there will be no further punishments for non-travel to Senior Cup games beyond the forfeiture of the match. 

Cork Harlequins’ women, meanwhile, will not go to Belfast Harlequins in the EYHL on Saturday, the second time this term they have made such a decision.

They requested a postponement but Hockey Ireland reaffirmed the game should go ahead and so will now adjudicate on what happens next. 

It means five matches in the two tiers of the EYHL now are awaiting a judgement – Harlequins’ games at Muckross and Belfast Quins, UCC’s EYHL2 game at Trinity, Cork C of I’s match at Monkstown along with the men’s EY game between Pembroke and Banbridge. 

It means Hockey Ireland have a serious headache already this season in their endeavours to get a meaningful competition played, one which the governing body is not alone in grappling with.  

UEFA has already seen clubs forfeit fixtures in their European competitions dealing with travel restrictions. The rules are currently being tested in Italy’s Serie A where Napoli refused to play Juventus after they were advised by their local health authority not to travel from Naples to Turin. 

In rugby’s Gallagher Premiership in England, 16 Sale Sharks players and three staff tested positive ahead of their tie with Worcester Warriors. In the circumstances, a refix was agreed, shifting the tie from last Sunday to Wednesday. 

However, on the same day, Northampton Saints were forced to forfeit their tie with Gloucester 20-0 with the former left short of front-row options after a number of players were advised to self-isolate following a track and trace audit. 

Sports lawyer Jonny Madill – a former player with Instonians before moving to London – works with leagues, clubs and players across various sports at sports law firm Sheridans – and says it is hugely important for Hockey Ireland to establish “clear and fair” EYHL regulations sooner rather than later to head off a quagmire of appeals, the like of which was seen last summer over the decision to void the EYHL season.  

“Every sport and every league is and will be dealing with this issue,” he told The Hook. “I have a degree of sympathy for Hockey Ireland and any league or sporting body because you can’t simply postpone every weekend and still have a chance of getting through the season.  

“Just like the season curtailment issue, there is no precedent for it in sport, never mind hockey. Nobody has ever had to deal with this before but the onus is on the league body to consult with clubs and have an agreed set of rules in place to mitigate risks of similar disputes arising next April, May and June.”  

“In professional sport, the automatic forfeit rule if you cannot field players makes sense. For example, in football the UEFA model is that if a club has 13 available players including a goalkeeper, the match must go ahead or a forfeit will apply, and this has trickled down to domestic leagues and competitions.  

“However, this doesn’t necessarily always work for an amateur sport like hockey in Ireland where there are nuances and exceptional circumstances at play. Many clubs will have frontline workers, and then there is the fact that different government guidelines and restrictions apply north and south and in different counties.  

“That is where Hockey Ireland needs to find the right balance in its rules. Some sports have decided to have an independent panel decide on postponement requests by clubs in special circumstances and that is certainly one approach that could work well here.” 

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