When will they play again?

Published date20 February 2021
Publication titleIrish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
There has been nothing apart from a strained effort to continue to educate in the alien environment of social distancing and, since January, remote learning. It has been challenging for teachers and a dismal substitute for students.

When schools resumed in September, it was in the mode of stealth manoeuvre against coronavirus. Students were masked until Christmas and it was half a miracle that Irish schools managed to operate safely until then. But since schools broke for Christmas, Ireland's post-primary students have been stuck at home, studying remotely, isolated from friends and with a floating return date and the mere idea of playing sport fanciful.

The lockdown has meant an intense framework of localised existence, with everyone remaining within walking distance of their household, a limitation not experienced by Irish society since the early 1900s.

Within the realm of sport, that has meant tens of thousands of energetic, committed and talented teenagers for whom school sport, at all levels, was a source of enjoyment and structure and ambition, suddenly vanished. There has been nothing for almost a year in their young lives.

"Sport is one of the main reasons that some students enjoy coming to school and for that to be suddenly gone was major," says Catherine Power, who teaches maths and PE in the Presentation Convent in Kilkenny.

"The team bond of being in the final year and playing with their classmates, whom they may never play with again, is something unique," says Dom Corrigan, who teaches PE in St Michael's, Enniskillen and coached the senior boys Gaelic football team to the 2019 Hogan Cup. The competition, running since 1946, was not completed in 2020 and while it has yet to be officially cancelled this year, the calendar year means it is unlikely to take place.

"Indoor sports have been hardest hit," says Pat Critchley, the renowned Laois coach who last year achieved national honours in both basketball and Gaelic football. "At least outdoor sports were able to do a bit in the summer but indoor has been gone for almost a full year."

Paddy O'Reilly teaches PE in Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun. "My first love would be soccer and then Gaelic but the thing that has been playing on my mind is the possibilities to introduce other sports that are more Covid compliant."

Andy Skehan is the figurehead behind the emergence of St Michael's College on Ailesbury Road as one of the great success stories of contemporary Irish rugby.

"How deep is this rabbit hole?" he wonders. "You can keep digging and from my perspective, it looks pretty deep."

Like most coaches, Skehan is fastidious in his organisation and advance planning but he fully admits that they are all in the dark as to the lasting impact of a full calendar year with zero sport in schools. The link between St Michael's and rugby players who have become household names at provincial and international level is impressive. All classes in the school have now missed 12 months of coaching and competition. The U18 and U19 interprovincial competitions were cancelled last August and may not happen this year.

"So those guys...

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