independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Sean Diffley: Irish sport’s 2012 stocking left overflowing by Santa

WHEN you raise your glass this festive morning, remember to include in your toast a suitable plaudit to this remarkable 2012, Ireland's greatest, most successful sporting year in history.

And as we ponder on the passing months, we hearken back to our childhood and Christmas presents from Santa never quite up to expectations, but on this occasion the stocking is blooming, colourful and surpassing our most eager expectations.

Just look at the facts.

On this planet of ours, where you would find difficulty in finding an acre or two that is not a golf course, a 23-year-old – Rory McIlroy – from that small course in County Down, wields his clubs spectacularly more skilfully than anyone else, anywhere.

That Olympic gold by Katie Taylor not alone introduced women's boxing to the Games, but did so with a polished flourish, setting a standard that is far removed from basic brutality. Katie exhibited and pioneered finesse.

And then there was Fionnuala Britton, champion of European cross-country for a second year and leader of the Irish gold medal team.

I recall risking hypothermia in the ankle-deep mud of Limerick racecourse back in 1979 when John Treacy, looking like a refugee from Shackleton's Antarctic exploits, won the men's title.

Now it's Britton, a lightweight from Brittas Bay who romped over the Hungarian slopes to leave the rest of Europe trailing in her wake.

And more, much more. Leinster winning the Heineken Cup for the second successive year, beating Ulster in the final, a success story that has the over-rated English and French clubs wallowing in their own jealousy.

And I wonder if we appreciate that extraordinary establishment in Ballydoyle whose latest equine star, Camelot, showed a clean pair of hooves to its purposeful pursuers.

So, what does it all mean? What lessons do we learn from the 2012 presents from Santa?

The main one, surely, is that while recession takes its toll, fiscally and emotionally, sport can be a solace, momentarily brushing the dark clouds aside. And, as this year departs, the dark clouds have dispersed to reveal a bright blue sky.

We certainly don't spend as much money on sport as most other developed countries. But the saving grace is sponsorship, such as the long-running Phillips support for the manager of the year award, this year's winners being the fantastic Billy Walsh and Pete Taylor.

And there is the considerable list of those, just off the radar, who have immense international regard – Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty from racing, boxers like John Joe Nevin and those incredible paralympians Bethany Firth, Mark Rohan, Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop.

And, of course, there's the awesome skill whose demonstrations are necessarily confined to this island from Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning.

Yes, it certainly was a year to savour.

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