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Sporting bodies welcome 'fresh optimism' with hope on the horizon after lockdown roadmap published



Outdoor facilities like tennis clubs are set to be amongst the first to reopen.

Outdoor facilities like tennis clubs are set to be amongst the first to reopen.

Outdoor facilities like tennis clubs are set to be amongst the first to reopen.

Northern Ireland sporting organisations have given a cautious welcome to the NI Executive's step-by-step approach to the relaxation of Covid-19 regulations.

The five-step plan, albeit without indicative dates, sees outdoor sports facilities re-open for training and organised group activities in step two, which includes golf courses and tennis courts.

Northern Ireland's blueprint does not include a timetable and the Executive must review its coronavirus restrictions regularly, with the next due on March 16.

But there is no swift return to stadiums for supporters as they must wait until phase four and numbers in attendance will be limited until the final phase of the lockdown strategy.

Under the current restrictions, classed as phase one, training and matches are only permitted for elite athletes but non-elite teams can play in the Irish Cup if the Executive progress into phase two by May.

Queen's University, however, who recorded a famous win over Linfield last year and are scheduled to face Bangor in this season's Round of 32, have pulled out of the tournament, citing a lack of sufficient preparation.

Newry City have also withdrawn from the tournament.

Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools will re-open in phase three of the plan. The GAA are targeting a possible early-May start for the inter-county season.

Ulster Tennis Development Manager Stephen Garvin said: "Tennis hasn't been allowed since December 23 but there is fresh optimism for us."

Garvin added: “The timing is good with the weather improving and it’s a unique opportunity for the sport to welcome new participants.

“Hopefully on March 16 we will get a date to open, possibly April, and our return to play protocols will kick in. Clubs will adhere to rules and it’s important we are given notice so the clubs can implement safety measures.

“Our clubs’ memberships improved in 2020 and we are optimistic about our participation numbers.”

Marc Scott, executive manager of Ulster Hockey, said he could see light at the end of the tunnel.

“Ulster Hockey is cautiously optimistic for the future return of hockey training and competition,” he said.

“Despite the cancellation of the leagues, we have contingency plans in place to allow a return of competitive hockey. We will advise our clubs and members of the opportunities to play as soon as we have the necessary clarity and detail on the return of sport.”

Down Royal chief executive Emma Meehan welcomed the news of the return of spectators to the course in the coming months.

“We have been racing behind closed doors since July 2020 and have been preparing a number of scenarios for the safe return of spectators to our facility, as and when the government allows,” said Ms Meehan.

“The primary aim will be the return of owners within Step 4 and consideration of members and box holders either within or thereafter depending on the cap. To operate behind closed doors constitutes around 150-170 people between jockeys and stakeholders, so any cap has to include the already existing base.”

Ulster Rugby added: “Ulster Rugby is encouraged to see a return to local sport in Northern Ireland on the horizon, but NI clubs and schools are reminded that no collective training is permitted under current guidelines.

“Ulster Rugby also continues to work closely with the NI Executive on a return of spectators to Kingspan Stadium. This will be in line with the latter steps of the ‘Moving Forward: The Executive’s Pathway Out of Restrictions’ plan — and upcoming matches will remain behind closed doors.”

Belfast Telegraph

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