Athletics: Euro places at a premium
ONLY the top two finishers in each race at the Woodies DIY/AAI Inter-County Cross Country Championships in Sligo on Sunday week will gain automatic selection for next month's European Championships.
Athletics Ireland's usual practice is to give an automatic international vest to the top three across the line in the senior, U-23 and junior grades, but that won't apply this season.
The change reflects AAI's belief that there is not the necessary depth to warrant sending a full team in every age group to the European games, which take place in Velenje, Slovenia, on December 11.
Ireland's men's U-23 team took a surprise gold in Portugal a year ago to kick-start an excellent season for the current underage crop. But only one of those European U-23 champions -- Michael Mulhare -- is still eligible for that grade this season.
Team manager Ann Keenan-Buckley believes that the new selection policy reflects the changing dynamic that the selectors must adapt to.
"Compared to last year, we don't have the same depth at men's U-23 level this season whereas our junior women have a very promising team," she said.
The junior women's team seems certain to include track star Ciara Mageean, young DSD prodigy Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner and World Youth Championship race walking champion Kate Veale.
Veale returned to her cross-country roots last weekend and finished third in the McCain Challenge in Bristol, where Tullamore's Liam Brady (second in the junior men's) was Ireland's top performer. Ireland may also be unusually weak at senior women's level, despite the fact that Fionnuala Britton -- the first European home in Burgos last weekend and agonisingly pipped for a bronze medal in the Algarve last December -- will be such a strong contender individually.
Mary Cullen and Deirdre Byrne are both now working with the same coach as Britton -- Chris Jones -- but neither are yet fully race-fit after injury setbacks.
"The reality is that we will have some serious individual contenders this year but, apart from junior women, probably won't be that strong team-wise," Keenan-Buckley said.
Ireland's European cross-country teams usually include several US-based scholarship athletes and West Waterford's David McCarthy (Providence College), who led the U-23 team to 2010 Euro gold, showed good form when second in the NCAA Regional Championship (Northeast) last week, when team-mate Shane Quinn (Ferrybank) was 17th.
Another of last year's U-23 stars, DSD's Brendan O'Neill, who is spending this year at Florida State, was fourth in the South Regional. DSD's Charlotte Ffrench-O'Carroll showed a return to form when seventh overall for Providence's women.
O'Neill's college automatically went through to next Monday's NCAA XC Nationals in Indiana and the Providence men also qualified after getting one of the 13 'at large' cards.
Elsewhere, Alistair Cragg, who broke Mark Carroll's 13-year Irish 5,000m record in September, will be chasing Olympic qualification in the marathon when he is part of the 16-man elite field in the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan on December 4.