Friday 24 February 2017

Boxing: Technical knockout

Sports Council move a clear vote of no-confidence in IABA

There is no denying the sense of unease beginning to gust through Irish boxing. The Irish Sports Council's decision not to fund the full-time positions of CEO and High Performance Director scarcely requires any complex decoding.

It can be interpreted, essentially, as a gesture of deep frustration with how the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) does its business.

There was, it must be said, no question of impropriety in the appointments of Don Stewart and (imminently) Dominic O'Rourke to these positions. Just the sense of a body working to a slightly eccentric drumbeat.

The decision, especially, to overlook Billy Walsh as HP Director generated intense heat yesterday, with Art O'Brien, president of the Dublin County Board, insisting: "It's outrageous, yet nobody is surprised."

Maybe to understand the High Performance Programme, you need to know what Walsh has given it.

In 2002, he was appointed head coach of the programme and has been pivotal to its remarkable success since. Walsh and HP Director at the time, Gary Keegan, knew that amateur boxing in this country needed many things back then. Above all, they believed it needed information.


So, they were innovative and brazen.

For maybe a year, Keegan tried frantically to get inside the great production systems of amateur boxing in Europe. He peppered the French Federation with so many emails it bordered on harassment. Eventually, they could take no more and acquiesced.

So, in 2003, seven Irish boxers flew to a training camp in France and came home traumatised.

The gulf between their perception of professional preparation and French reality offered only uncomfortable conclusions. When they arrived home, Keegan and Walsh got the boxers in the gym and drew what they called "a line in the sand".

As Keegan recalled: "We said, 'Lads, this is what world-class boxers do. Now you either stay there or walk across here'."

Soon after, they would bring six of their most experienced boxers to Moscow, exposing them to the torture of 6am runs on snow-covered roads and three-times-daily training sessions. The boxers were growing and learning.

It was too new an education to reap dividends by the time of the Athens Olympics, but Keegan and Walsh knew where they were headed.

They certainly knew it when the Russians, traditionally Europe's most daunting force in amateur boxing, invited them back to Moscow for another training camp. And when, this time, the information started flowing both ways.

Strength and conditioning coach, John Cleary, strapped heart monitors onto the Irish during sparring and, fascinated, the Russians asked him to test their fighters too. At the end of the camp, Keegan gave a power-point presentation of the findings, then flew home with the data on both teams.

These were the early steps, the first glimpses into the heart of a programme that, in delivery and ambition, now routinely performs on a level that seemed unimaginable when Keegan and Walsh took over.

The marquee moment, of course, was Beijing. Ken Egan, Paddy Barnes and the late Darren Sutherland all brought home Olympic medals to propel our amateur boxers to the forefront of national affection. It was easy then to forget the way some in the IABA had questioned the very integrity of the HP Programme after the 2007 World Championships in Chicago.

You see, Ireland came home from America without medals and with only Barnes having secured qualification for the Olympics. In some quarters, Keegan and Walsh were all but depicted as dilettantes.

That time spoke of a strange edginess between officers of the IABA and the High Performance Programme, an edginess that -- frankly -- lingers to this day.

When Keegan moved on to the Institute of Sport after Beijing, Walsh was his obvious successor. Yet, 20 months on, the Association is only now making the decision. And the man who has run the programme in the interim with astonishing success has -- inexplicably -- been overlooked.

O'Brien reflected last night: "There is a genuine discomfort among boxing people at what's happening. People might say that that discomfort is only manifest in Dublin, but it's being felt right around the country.

"I would say there is genuine disgust actually. It's outrageous, yet nobody is surprised. Billy Walsh is the guy who had all the credentials, he was already doing the job with spectacular success, he is computer-literate, knows the procedure and is universally respected. Yet, he's overlooked.

"I don't doubt Dominic O'Rourke's ability as a coach. Not at all. But, you have to ask, does that give him the other credentials required for High Performance Director? I don't believe it does. He has certainly never displayed them."

While Walsh himself has remained tight-lipped on the subject, the case for his candidacy is rather easily made.

Since Beijing, Ireland's amateur boxers have forged a path of unprecedented success across the globe. In '08, they won three bronze medals at the European Championships in Liverpool; Ray Moylette was crowned World Youth champion in Mexico; the extraordinary Katie Taylor won her second world title in China and was subsequently named AIBA World Female Boxer of the Year.

In '09, Joe Ward won a world youth title in Armenia; Jason Quigley took European Youths gold in Poland; a nine-man Irish team went to the European Union Championships in Denmark and came home with nine medals, three of each colour.

Ireland won the Team of the Tournament award.

Incredibly, the last time an Irish team at any level failed to medal was at those 2007 World Championships. The High Performance Programme has since -- as former Dublin Board president Tony Mahony put it yesterday -- become a "medal machine".

Particularly impressive has been the seamless connect between Walsh and Zaur Antia with the seniors and Jim Moore with the juniors and cadets. Moore is regarded as, arguably, the best junior coach in the world today. He is currently away at the World Youth Championships in Azerbaijan.

Walsh, meanwhile, is due to take a 10-strong team to Warsaw next Tuesday for a multi-nations tournament that will be their last competitive outing before June's European Championships in Moscow.

Though it was reported on RTE television last night that the appointment of the new High Performance Director has been "deferred indefinitely", there has been no evidence to suggest that to be the case.

Walsh has, I understand, already been informed of O'Rourke's appointment and it is impossible to see the Sports Council actively intervening, given their recent visit to the High Court with Athletics Ireland.

There is also a natural reluctance to be seen to disparage O'Rourke, given the excellence of his coaching record with St Michael's Athy and, indeed, a splendid reputation of working with the local Travelling Community.

Yet it is hard not to see this story running for some time. Last week's Sports Council letter, denying funding for their new appointments -- at the very least -- places a pretty uncomfortable light on the IABA. After all, their High Performance Programme will benefit to the tune of €1,155,000 of government funds this year.

The body providing that funding has now -- essentially -- delivered a vote of no-confidence in the IABA's procedure of identifying who to put in charge of that money. Someone's going to have to hold their nerve here.

Who will it be?

Irish Independent

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