By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Ireland’s sports schedule for at least the next few weeks has been plunged into chaos as a result of the growing foot-and-mouth disease scare.
The countrywide shutdown, designed to restrict travel and thus the potential spread of the disease to cloven animals throughout the country, could lead to the scrapping of the national leagues and the All-Ireland club finals in Gaelic games, as well as to the postponement of the Six Nations rugby championship and to crippling financial losses in the horse racing industry.
While there had yet to be a confirmed outbreak of the disease in the Republic as of Monday, its presence in County Armagh and the recent spread in Britain prompted the Irish minister for Agriculture, Joe Walsh, to indicate that it could be as long as 30 days after the last reported case in Britain before sports would be permitted to get back on track. The disease does not affect humans, but people from infected areas can transport it.
Last weekend’s entire GAA program was postponed with no action in the National Hurling League and the association plans to review the situation on a week-to-week basis. While the completion of both hurling and football league competitions must be now doubtful, it seems certain that the two All-Ireland club finals scheduled for Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day will not go ahead.
Nemo Rangers of Cork and Mayo’s Crossmolina have reached the football decider, while the hurling semifinal replay between Graigue-Ballycallan of Kilkenny and Clare’s Sixmilebridge has yet to be staged, with Athenry of Galway awaiting the winner in the final. The two games usually generate gate receipts of £250,000, while any abandonment of the leagues could cost the GAA a further £1.25 million.
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There is a also a distinct possibility that the new-style All-Ireland football championship, which involves an additional 29 games in contrast to the traditional model, might be deferred until next season.
"We’re still training as normal," said Galway’s football manager, John O’Mahony, "but everyone is in the dark at the moment. The championship is obviously more important than the league, and if the new system has to be postponed until next year, then so be it."
With Irish horses already withdrawn from next week’s prestigious Cheltenham festival — so preventing Istabraq from going for an historic fourth Champion Hurdle victory in a row — racing in the Republic has been suspended indefinitely. A total of 17 meetings were scheduled for March, and while their loss is serious, the possible postponements of next month’s Punchestown and Fairyhouse festivals would have a devastating effect on the industry.
Last year’s betting turnover at Punchestown totaled £9 million, while the corresponding figure at Fairyhouse was £4 million.
"Our first plan is to run the top races before the end of this national hunt season," said the Turf Club’s chief executive, Brian Kavanagh. "But we might have to delay those top races until the autumn."
Any long-term racing ban would also be a disaster for the leading flat trainers as the flat season is due to start at the end of this month.
"At the moment, we are in limbo and everything is on hold," Kavanagh said.
As for rugby, last Saturday’s Six Nations game between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff was postponed with a provisional date set for April 29. The organizers of the most important tournament in Europe have already indicated that games could be played in early May, or even next autumn. As of now, no other international fixtures have been called off. However, the money-spinning match between Ireland and England at Lansdowne Road on March 24 must be in serious doubt.
England’s game against Scotland went ahead last Saturday with the English strolling to a 43-3 success, while France struggled to see off the challenge of Italy in Rome, coming through by 30-19.
The frustration for the Irish is that after two wins, the team’s momentum has been lost.
"I’ve no doubts we could have beaten Wales," said coach Warren Gatland. "But instead it will be like starting the championship all over again. It looks like our next game will be against Wales at the end of April. We’re bound to be a little rusty and not quite ready because of the disruptions."
The domestic club program was also postponed, with little hope for a short-term resumption. The playoffs for the All-Ireland League title could be now be scrapped with the club at the top of Div. 1 being awarded the title. Equally, the cash-strapped clubs could lose £500,000 if no games take place during March.
Ireland’s soccer international against Denmark, scheduled for last week, fell victim to the freezing weather, but since then all club games have been postponed with the possibility of players being dropped from the payroll. And with the complete shutdown in almost every sporting activity, including track and field, boxing, hockey, basketball, motorsport and grayhound racing, the world cross-country championships, which are scheduled for March 24-25 at Leopardstown racecourse in Dublin, are also under threat.
In the first instance, the decision rests with the Athletics Association of Ireland. However, it is believed that the International Athletics Federation is already looking at alternative venues in Europe.