Irish boxing coach confident of medal haul at London Olympics
HEAD coach Billy Walsh believes the Ireland boxing team is in good shape to match their three-medal haul from the Beijing Olympics four years ago when they embark on their London 2012 quest next month.
Paddy Barnes, Ken Egan and the late Darren Sutherland all claimed medals in the Chinese capital and Barnes' return in London is supplemented by the Olympic debut of four-time world champion Katie Taylor.
While Barnes is joined by Michael Conlan, John Joe Nevin, Adam Nolan and Darren O'Neill in the men's team, inevitably most attention has focused on Taylor, who most judges see as a sure-fire bet to reach the top of the podium.
But while Walsh understands the hype surrounding his team and Taylor in particular, he is adamant that the 26-year-old from Wicklow is cut out to cope with carrying the expectations of a whole nation on her shoulders.
Walsh told Press Association Sport: "Katie has had to constantly put up with this kind of pressure for years. She is the favourite at every tournament she goes to, and the girl they want to beat.
"The hype is expected, but unfortunately if she fails to win gold some will see it as a failure. The media-led Olympic circus can make many athletes under-perform and scupper the best-laid plans.
"But although Katie is the one under more pressure than anybody, she has been brilliant at coping with it. She has a fantastic coaching set-up with her father and is a very grounded girl."
Ireland also took five boxers to Beijing, but are still smarting about missing out on having more in London, in particular concerning teenage light-heavyweight and reigning European champion Joe Ward.
Ward missed out on qualifying directly in controversial circumstances in Trabzon earlier this year, but being ranked third in the world he appeared to be in pole position for one of the governing body's Olympic wild cards.
Instead, AIBA gave the spare 81 kilogram berth to Montenegro's Bosko Draskovic, leaving one of Ireland's best medal hopes out in the cold. Understandably, Walsh is cautious with his comments on the issue.
"We'd like to have taken more and we had to manage with the whole tripartite (wild card) issue. It really prolonged the agony for Joe, but we've had to shield the rest of the team and keep them focused."
Walsh believes Barnes could be better than ever in London, after his long period as one of the world's leading light-flyweights threatened to crash down when he failed to secure his own qualifying place at the World Championships.
Instead, Belfast's Barnes had to squeeze through at the tension-filled final qualifiers in Trabzon, but Walsh said: "Now the monkey of qualifying is off Paddy's back, the tension and pressure is off him too.
"Paddy sets a very high bar for himself. He is a winner and wants to be world and Olympic champion. For a time he wasn't performing because of the pressure he put on himself, but thankfully he has got through it."