The NI Executive-sanctioned opening this week of outdoor sports facilities within the five-step COVID-19 recovery plan has offered an opportunity for players, officials and supporters to, once again, start dreaming of sport’s unique highs and lows following months of fixture freeze.
However, to turn the dream into reality will first require an extensive effort across the board to implement an exhaustive list of health and safety protocols essential towards that much-anticipated first step back on the training field.
Guidance from governing bodies such as the Irish Football Association, Cricket Ireland and Irish Rugby Football Union has been delivered across the past few days.
Many officials have requested clubs to appoint COVID-19 safety officers, with staff training sessions planned to ensure the comprehensive regulations can be implemented over the next few weeks.
Non-contact training for small groups is now permitted but clubs must first adopt and adhere to strict hygiene guidelines ahead of athletes stepping back out on the grass.
Discussions over booking and access to council-owned facilities must also take place alongside comprehensive club planning.
At a time of the year traditionally devoted to willow and wickets, Waringstown Cricket Club captain Lee Nelson has switched his matchday routine of late to off-field affairs.
“We are not thinking in terms of games at this point but everyone is looking forward to getting together again for training sessions, you cannot replicate that team spirit in the same way over WhatsApp messages or Zoom video calls,” said Nelson, who will also sit on the club’s COVID-19 strategy committee. “We have a safety officer in place and, after training this week on the regulations, another club meeting is planned for Saturday to start the process of getting the club ready.
“We anticipate a week or 10 days of working together, with club volunteers coming in across a suitable schedule.
“There is a significant level of detail, naturally, with everyone keen to commit the time required to put everything in place to the letter.
“These measures are in place to help protect everyone ultimately, first and foremost.
“Then that first training session is certainly one everyone is relishing.
“We’ve had a few training sessions this year just so it’s going to take some time to get everyone up to speed but, thankfully, the players have been staying in shape during lockdown so general fitness levels will be fine.
“Of course, we will not be asking anyone to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
“But we are confident in the guidelines.”
Life at The Lawn dominates the sporting focus within the village of Waringstown - but that sense of community and camaraderie borne out of a group of people working towards a shared goal remains at the heart of the appeal common across the country.
The Portadown Rugby Club roster covers youth sides for under 14s, under 16s and under 18s, plus a women’s squad, learning disability group and four adult men’s teams.
“We were asked to nominate a COVID-19 safety officer last week as the first step, now it is about taking part in training and education support before completing a health and safety plan and risk assessment,” said Clive Bowles, Portadown’s director of rugby. “We need co-ordinators for each of our teams, plus the groundstaff and, looking towards later in the year, mini-rugby section.
“We have the health and safety regulations to follow towards a return to training.
“It is about the preparation and getting everything in place so we are ready to go when the green light is given from the IRFU.”
Grassroots sport is another area working towards a welcome return.
“We will meet to develop our response to the IFA document released on Saturday, then make contact with parents,” said Portadown FC Youth vice-chairman Alan Curran. “We are dealing with up to 270 children ranging in age from our under sixes to under 18s.
“We must also talk to the council for a plan to train at Brownstown Park, along with the parent club over plans for Shamrock Park.
“It is going to require a lot of planning, possibly a booking system, to facilitate the numbers involved across potential staggered sessions.
“There is a lot to discuss and we will keep everyone informed.
“Health and safety of the children, coaching staff and parents is the priority.”
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