In a week that saw 5 UCC Students take to the podium at the U23 European Rowing Championships, spirits are high on Western Road ahead of the return of third-level sport this September, albeit on a much different playing field. The contention and ambiguity surrounding return-to-play guidelines that have shrouded much of Irish sport since it’s resumption in early July will undoubtedly be just as prevalent on the third-level sporting scene. The revered nature of third-level sport has always been a major draw for many to UCC, with Freshers eagerly awaiting an opportunity to don the esteemed skull and crossbones. And considering how ham-fisted the handling of the academic side of college life has been in recent weeks, the cries for clarity on how intervarsity sport will operate this year are warranted. So, what exactly will the UCC Sporting landscape look like amid a global pandemic?
Let’s start with facilities. Rugby and soccer squads are well accustomed to biweekly strength & conditioning training sessions at the Mardyke Arena’s squad gym. However, due to the recently refurbished Arena gyms, squad conditioning sessions will now take place at the Curraheen training grounds of Cork City FC. This delivers the logistical nightmare of transporting students from the main campus to Curraheen, not helped by the absence of public transport links and the current Covid-restrictions on carpooling. Nonetheless, Arena staff insist that Freshers will experience just as professional a setup as they would have in previous years. The Arena itself which is used by over 20 clubs as their main training facility has had its operations significantly curtailed in adherence to Covid guidelines, with limited numbers allowed to enter the facility at a given time. Clubs that avail of the Arena’s indoor hall and studios will be amongst those most impacted in the new semester, with committees already preparing for reduced capacity training sessions: UCC Rowing is one such club that are adapting their preparations. The club’s Vice-Captain David Breen disclosed to the Express that the club’s Fresher intake will be reduced in comparison to previous years due to restrictions on indoor gatherings, a trend that might become more common in other clubs as Fresher registrations are tallied. Breen echoes the grievances of other clubs on the issue of transporting squads to and from competition venues, lamenting the predicament of carpooling whilst maintaining social distancing. Facility restrictions, which at present will see dressing rooms and dugouts prohibited at the Mardyke for field-based clubs, is also a problem for the rowers, who will not have access to the National Rowing Centre in the immediate future due to the prioritisation of the national squad’s training efforts.
Freshers can expect the return of all major third-level competitions this semester, an impressive feat considering how truncated this year’s sporting calendar has become. The transition of the Third-Level GAA Leagues to a regional format without knockout stages is so far the only major difference to the UCC sporting calendar. Despite the current climate, it is evident that those overseeing third-level sport are determined to pick up from where they left off in May, a sentiment shared by Vice-President of the UCC Club’s Executive, Tommy Holohan. When asked what changes returning students should expect, Holohan explains that all clubs are now required to complete a Return-To-Play Protocol before club activity can recommence, with each club also having a designated Covid-19 Officer. At the time of writing, a mere 20 out of the 58 UCC Clubs have fulfilled their Return-To-Play Protocol obligations and have been approved by the Executive to compete this year; a concerning statistic with less than a fortnight till the new academic year commences. For those apprehensive about getting involved in clubs this year, Holohan assures that every precaution is being taken to prioritise public health and that the pandemic should not act as a deterrent to club involvement for Freshers. Holohan encourages all incoming students to register their club interest at the Digital Freshers Fair at the end of September.
This year’s Freshers join the rest of the UCC student cohort in swapping lecture theatres for their bedrooms, and the hustle of campus life for the solitude of remote learning; no amount of PR can distract you from the fact that this college year will be one like no other. In an academic year blighted by restricted campus access and limited social events, sport may prove UCC’s big redeemer for incoming Freshers expecting the real college experience. The beauty of third-level sport is that you can take away crowds, restrict facilities, and enforce rigorous health protocols, but it’ll still maintain its magic and appeal. So for those Freshers clinging to any hope of normality ahead of the new college year, take solace in the fact that some things can’t be substituted or lost in the college’s digital transformation; rest assured that you won’t be playing Fitzgibbon Cup hurling or Collingwood Cup football over Zoom.