Thursday 8 December 2016

Pick our Sportstar of the Year and win a trip to Washington

Published 29/11/2016 | 02:30

The compulsive spirit beating so powerfully within Irish sport routinely lifts our lives above the dreary treadmill of day-to-day survival. Throughout 2016, that spirit communicated a truly thunderous message.

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It spoke of Irish men and women being the best that they could be under the hard press of often irrational hope and expectation.

Accordingly, the distinction of being voted Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year can seldom have carried greater distinction.

Joe Schmidt's tactical wizardry was writ large across one of Irish rugby's greatest days when in Soldier Field, Chicago, Ireland recorded a first Test victory over the All Blacks after 111 years of trying.

Then, there was the fairytale march of Pat Lam's Connacht to a Pro 12 title that would have been unimaginable a few short years ago when their very survival as a professional entity was under threat.

It was also a watershed year for Martin O'Neill and the Republic of Ireland, the optimism generated by a fine campaign at the Euro finals in France carrying impressively into the World Cup qualifiers to leave them leaders of Group D despite three of their opening four games being away from home.

Wes Hoolahan's glorious volley ought really have brought full points against a largely-outplayed Sweden in Stade de France and who will ever forget the moment Hoolahan's cross found the temple of an in-rushing Robbie Brady to secure victory against Italy in Lille?

Domestically, there was the extraordinary success story of Stephen Kenny's Dundalk, securing a third consecutive League of Ireland title and summoning a European campaign that spectacularly put the lie to any notion that Irish teams could not sensibly aspire to playing with ambition and flair on the continental stage.

In another extraordinary year for Irish racing, the most emotional moment was probably Mouse Morris's saddling of the Aintree Grand National winner, Road to Riches.

There was Annie Power winning the Champion Hurdle for Willie Mullins too, the Closutton maestro having another extraordinary year in which he narrowly missed out on winning the English Trainers' Championship.

Mullins' dominance in Ireland is slowly coming under threat from Gordon Elliott, who saddled Don Cossack to Gold Cup glory on a tumultuous Cheltenham Friday.

On the Flat, Aidan O'Brien won both British and Irish titles, narrowly missing out on a new world record of Group One victories for a season.

Found led home a spectacular O'Brien one-two-three in the Arc and, of course, Pat Smullen guided Dermot Weld's Harzand to victories in both the Epsom and Irish Derby showpieces.

At the Olympics, the O'Donovan brothers, Paul and Gary, won rowing silver under the out-stretched arms of Corcovado and Annalise Murphy finally fulfilled her Olympic dream with silver too out at the sailing marina.

Rio also played host to the Paralympics, where Ireland's athletes exceeded all expectations, claiming four gold, four silver and three bronze medals.

EMOTIONAL

In golf, Rory McIlroy secured an emotional Irish Open win at the K Club and Padraig Harrington worked his way back into the winners' enclosure.

In Gaelic football, under Jim Gavin's watch Dublin won the League and Championship double as Stephen Cluxton became the first man to captain three All-Ireland-winning sides.

On the hurling front a scintillating attacking display from Tipperary attacker Seamus Callanan, who hit 13 points, including an astonishing nine from play, helped Michael Ryan's Premier side dethrone three-in-a-row-seeking Kilkenny, while Davy Fitzgerald's Clare were crowned League champions.

One of the great sporting teams made more history as Cork's ladies footballers made it six in a row, and 11 from the 12, with Doireann O'Sullivan kicking the all-important scores for the Rebelettes to collect the Brendan Martin Cup, while Kilkenny ended Cork's dominance in camogie with Julie Ann Malone playing a pivotal role.

Conor McGregor became the first fighter in UFC history to hold titles at two different weights simultaneously.

Irish Independent

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