Huge relief as Donnelly books bronze medal clash
Steven Donnelly has just 48 hours to prepare for the biggest challenge of his career, an welterweight bronze medal showdown against World champion Mohammed Rabii.
Reeling from the shock exits of medal contenders Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward, and Michael O'Reilly's failed dope test, there was a palpable sense of relief in the Irish camp when Donnelly (27) secured a majority 2-1 verdict over Tuvshinbat Byamba of Mongolia after an absorbing contest.
Donnelly qualified for the Olympic through the back door, but he is certainly making his presence felt in Rio, becoming the Irish fighter to secure back-to-back wins.
Ballymena native Donnelly acknowledged how important yesterday's win was to the squad, although he is aware he will have to defy the odds to beat Morocco's Rabii.
"It's brilliant, we needed that," he said. "In the last few days things haven't gone our way and the pressure was on Zaur (Antia) and the coaches. But these lads are world class.
"Rabi is world champion for a reason but I believe in myself. I will give it my all and I'm in a win-win situation from now on. I can't wait."
Donnelly looked the busier fighter from the bell even though his experienced opponent had fought at the London Games. Byamba did manage to catch the Irishman with a couple of decent shots but Donnelly got the nod from two of the three judges at the end of the round.
Byamba had a better second round but Donnelly kept landing the majority of the scoring punches.
But in what is becoming a puzzling, pattern in the tournament the judges disagreed on who did the better work. Two opted for the Irishman but the other - who had given the first round to Donnelly - gave the round to Byamba.
This left the fight on a knife-edge with Donnelly ahead on one card while it was level 19-19 on the other two.
In the opening minute of the final stanza Donnelly seemed to be wheeling away from his man and not doing enough to impress the judges. But eventually he started to go forward and engage again and did enough to get the round from two of the judges to secure a spot in the quarter-final on a split (30-27 29-28 28-29) decision.
It was a bit close for comfort but after the week the team has experienced they needed and deserved a break.