Sport

Sunday 4 December 2016

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

Published 28/11/2016 | 02:30

The compulsive spirit beating so powerfully within Irish sport routinely lifts our lives above the dreary treadmill of day-to-day survival.

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Throughout 2016, that spirit communicated a truly thunderous message.

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.

So who will succeed Paul O'Connell for that ultimate accolade?

There will surely be no shortage of the great man's former comrades coming into consideration given the historic firsts achieved by the Irish rugby team.

True, after winning back-to-back Six Nations titles, their spring campaign was underwhelming this year with a mid-table finish behind a Grand Slam-winning England team under the hard-nosed tutelage of Eddie Jones.

But on June 11 in Capetown, Joe Schmidt's men overcame an early red card for CJ Stander to record Ireland's first away Test victory against the Springboks.

And, if they fell short in subsequent Tests in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, the margins of defeat (six points each day) spoke of an Irish team now comfortable in its own skin when facing up to giants of the Southern Hemisphere.

victories

Yet, moral victories hold no appeal for Schmidt and his tactical wizardry was writ large across one of Irish rugby's greatest days five months later when in Soldier Field, Chicago, Ireland recorded a first Test victory over the All Blacks after 111 years of trying.

There was the fairytale march of Pat Lam's Connacht to a Pro 12 title too that would have been unimaginable a few short years ago when their very survival as a professional entity was under such threat that thousands took to the leafy streets around Lansdowne Road in protest.

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?

The quality of Ireland's football in France won them many new admirers and, if they haven't yet quite reached that same level of coherence in the battle to reach Russia 2018, their tally of ten points from four games puts them in an impressive pole position.

Highlight of the campaign so far was undoubtedly James McClean's picture-perfect goal in Vienna to record a first ever away victory against Austria.

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.

Only Cork City have been viable challengers to Dundalk in the domestic league and John Caulfield's men edged out the champions to claim a precious FAI Cup win.

It was yet another extraordinary year for Irish racing, both Flat and National Hunt.

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.

WORLD RECORD

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.

Ireland's Olympic glory did not materialise, as most expected, in the boxing hall. On the contrary, our boxers would have their worst Olympiad since Athens, coming home medal-less, with favourites Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan, feeling particularly frustrated as the risible standard of ringside judging eventually led to the AIBA stepping down seven of its senior officials.

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.

There was no medal, yet abundant glory for Thomas Barr in the Olympic Stadium, the injury-plagued Waterford athlete pipped for bronze by the breadth of a butterfly's wings in the 400m hurdles final. Barr's humility and charm in the face of crushing disappointment will forever ennoble his achievements in Rio.

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

In golf, Rory McIlroy secured an emotional Irish Open win at the K Club, his closing eagle three placing a suitably regal signature under the achievement.

Padraig Harrington worked his way back into the winners' enclosure too while, in rallying, Waterford's Craig Breen distinguished his first season at full world championship level with a remarkable third place finish in the iconic Rally Finland.

On the GAA fields, under Jim Gavin's watch Dublin's all-conquering footballers won the League and Championship double again, and then joined their 1976/77 counterparts with back-to-back triumphs 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.

At club level, Tony Kelly was at his brilliant best to drive Ballyea to a maiden Clare SHC title while team-mate Niall Deasy picked up the man-of-the-match award after his seven points kept their remarkable journey alive to claim Munster honours.

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.

And while he polarises opinion, Conor McGregor cemented his status as the king of MMA when becoming the first two-weight champion, holding the featherweight and lightweight titles simultaneously after overwhelming Eddie Alvarez.

Irish Independent

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