With Rio 2016 and the Euros coming up later this year, there will be a host of opportunities for Irish sports stars to shine. Team that along with what will be a testing year for Ireland’s international rugby team following an underwhelming World Cup, as they try to defend their Six Nations title, there are a few names to look out for over the next 12 months.
Ireland’s boxing elite
Team Ireland’s biggest medal sweep can come from boxing in Rio where they have a number of favourites in different weight divisions. No one can ignore the utter domination Wicklow’s Katie Taylor has in the sport, currently holding the title of Irish, European, World and Olympic Champion in the 60 kg division.
Her star profile has gone from strength to strength since winning Ireland’s only gold in London, and having won the last five World Championships, the last six European Championships her popularity has firmly cemented her place as the country’s national treasure.
The men are led by Michael Conlon, who picked up the RTE Sportsperson of the Year award before Christmas, is arguably Ireland’s most improved boxer since the 2012 Olympics.
That time he came in third, but is undeniably the gold medal favourite this time around in the bantamweight division.
He made history this year at the World Amateur Championships in Doha by being the first Irish male boxer to win a gold medal.
Veteran amateur Paddy Barnes of Belfast will also be looking to improve on his past Olympic success, in a career in which he has won bronze twice at London 2016 and Beijing 2008.
The 28-year-old lightflyweight boxer will be optimistic after clinching gold at both the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Joe Ward should arguably already have an Olympic medal after injury and some controversial decisions cost him his chance in London medal but the 21-year-old has an amazing chance having medalled in the 2013 World Championships.
The young star won European Gold aged only 17 in 2011.
The Boys in Green
AFTER A dramatic qualifying campaign, Martin O’Neill’s side have made only their second Euro Championships finals since 1988.
Having come through the group of death which featured World Cup champions Germany and the strong Poland, Ireland have been drawn in another tricky pool for France, where they will face old-enemies Italy, the FIFA top-ranked side Belgium and the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden.
One of the players who came to the fore during the qualifying campaign is Stoke City striker Jon Walters who scored key goals against Belgium and Georgia to book Ireland’s trip to Paris.
The 32-year-old has been somewhat of an unsung hero for Ireland in the past 14 years, despite being an increasingly regular starter, but with 117 career goals, he is a vital component to his side, and has received plaudits from supporter and pundit alike for his tireless work ethic off the ball.
The Merseyside native, who qualifies through his mother, has a wealth of experience despite not starting his international career until the age of 27, having played for Bolton, Hull, Crewe Alexandra, Barnsley, Scunthorpe, Wrexham and Chester.
His gritty resolve which has stood to him in a stop-start career plagued with injury and illness, will be needed in Ireland’s tricky ambitions of reaching the knock-out stages.
Competing in the sailing laser radial, an outside medal contender is young Dubliner Annalise Murphy who was heartbreakingly close to a podium spot in London. She was ousted in the final race, but since then has had a mixed run of form despite winning the European Championships in 2013 and qualifying with ease for Rio in 2014.
Olympic Golf Team
Rio 2016 will see the return of golf for the first time since the 1904 Summer Olympics and will feature both a men’s and women’s individual event. Qualification automatically goes to the top 15 ranked players, and with Rory McIlroy already stating his intention to compete for Team Ireland, one spot looks sure to be his.
Ryder Cup hero Paul McGinley has been named as team leader, and with the next men’s spot set aside for the next highranking player, it looks like Shane Lowry could be on the plane to Brazil, as he stands 21st in the world at the moment, and is desperate to push up the rankings with an even more successful year in 2016.
Grahame McDowell has also expressed his desire in playing in the Olympics for Ireland, so it will be an exciting first half of the year to see the Irish hopefuls battle it out for their place at Rio.
Qualification will be based on world ranking as of July 11, with a total of 60 players qualifying in each of the men’s and women’s events.
The top 15 players of each gender will qualify, with a limit of four golfers per country that can qualify this way.
The remaining spots will go the highest-ranked players from countries that do not already have two golfers qualified. The IGF has guaranteed that at least one golfer from the host nation and each geographical region (Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania) will qualify.
Stephanie Meadow, who completed her rookie year in 2015, looks to be the main shout for the women’s team as she lies 220 in the rankings at present, Ireland’s top seed, having earned $26,632 in the year to date.
The Antrim native first gained attention with her third place finish at the US Open in 2014 in her professional debut. The 23-year-old Jordanstown native studied at the University of Alabama.
The 20-year-old Wexford native leads a strong Irish show jumping team, which will also likely feature Denis Lynch and Darragh Kennedy.
Allen reached sixth place in the world rankings in December, having only first entered the elite top 20 in November 2014, and breaking into the top ten rankings just four months later.
Ireland now has seven riders in the official World Top 100 of the Longines World Show Jumping Rankings, in which over 2,000 international riders are monitored each month, with points awarded for top performances at major shows. Behind Allen in Decmber’s rankings, Tipperary’s Lynch is in 27th place, with Down’s Conor Swail just below him in 31st, while US-based Kenny is in 59th place.
Meath’s Cian O’Connor has improved to 66th place, while Cork’s Billy Twomey is in 91st, and Floridabased Cork rider Shane Sweetnam in 93rd. Kilkenny rider Richie Moloney is hovering just outside the top 100 in 102nd place, with Mayo’s Cameron Hanley also poised to break through, currently in 105th place.
At the 2012Olympics, Heffernan finished ninth in the 20km race walk, and a week later finished fourth in the 50km, seven minutes faster than the previous national record.
He may still be awarded a medal for his London efforts, but his achievements in the British capital were the top two performances for the Irish team at the 2012 Olympics.
The 37-year-old Corkonian is the current World Champion, but has suffered from injuries of late, retiring from the 50k race at the European Championships.
More about the Rio Olympics 2016: www.rio2016.com