Thursday 23 May 2019

2019: Is this the year Ireland's rugby dreams come true?

Many have their sights set on the Rugby World Cup in Japan, but 2019 promises much for GAA, soccer, boxing, hockey and sports fans everywhere, writes John Meagher

Jacob Stockdale celebrates his try against New Zealand.
Jacob Stockdale celebrates his try against New Zealand.
Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley, left, and Cian O'Sullivan celebrate with the Sam Maguire
Anna O'Flanagan and Gillian Pinder
Olympic hopeful Joe Ward
Boxer Kellie Harrington
Rowers Paul and Gary O'Donovan
Rower Sanita Puspure
Sailor Annalise Murphy
400m hurdler Thomas Barr
Olympic and World boxing champion Katie Taylor
Limerick hurlers celebrate with the Liam MacCarthy Cup
Republic of Ireland soccer manager Mick McCarthy
Jockey Rachael Blackmore
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is Saturday, November 2, 2019, and the entire island of Ireland is fixated on events in faraway Yokohama. It's Rugby World Cup Final day and Joe Schmidt's boys in green are on the verge of winning the Webb Ellis trophy. A nation holds its breath.

What might have read like the stuff of outlandish fantasy even a few years ago is far less ridiculous now after what's been the most spectacular 12 months in the history of Irish rugby.

Not only did Ireland win the Six Nations Grand Slam, but they also claimed the scalp of New Zealand in the Aviva in November, and Leinster won the double in Europe. Johnny Sexton was named World Player of the Year as well as RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year and the nation was ranked second in the world, moving ever closer to the perch occupied by the All Blacks.

For the first time an Irish team will enter a major international tournament and be among the favourites to win. These are uncharted waters and it's making some people very nervous - after all, Ireland has never managed to go beyond the quarter-final stage in any of the eight tournaments to date.

And the much-fancied Irish teams of 2011 and 2015 failed to make an impression in the respective World Cups.

But this is no ordinary squad and Schmidt is a coach cut from very different cloth. A generation of exciting young players like Ulster's Jacob Stockdale - the 2018 Six Nations leading try scorer - are far more familiar with success than failure. They expect Ireland to win every time they take to the pitch.

And yet there is a long way to go before the World Cup kicks off in Japan on September 20. There is a Six Nations to defend, with the likes of England - who visit Dublin on February 2 - keen to get revenge after losing last time around.

And there will be intrigue about Ireland's provinces too: can Leinster continue their glorious run of success or will Munster claim a first European Champions Cup since 2008?

But no matter what happens in the first half of the year, the spectre of Japan looms large and Irish rugby fans are entitled to dream. Schmidt, meanwhile, has announced that he will retire from coaching after the World Cup in order to spend time with his family but with the news that All Blacks coach Steve Hanson is to step aside after the tournament, New Zealand native Schmidt may be tempted to take on rugby's most challenging role back home.

If these are glorious days for supporters of the oval ball game, it's a very different story when thinking about the fortunes of the original boys in green. Irish football has just come out of perhaps its grimmest period, having failed to win a single competitive game in 2018 and suffering relegation in the inaugural Nations League competition.

While Joe Schmidt was being hailed as one of the world's best coaches, his football equivalent, Martin O'Neill, seemed to be lurching from one crisis to the next. And despite helping to orchestrate some memorable victories - not least that one over Italy in Euro 2016 - there was widespread relief when both he and assistant Roy Keane resigned in November.

But there's a degree of optimism as the country faces into the new year. Mick McCarthy has been appointed for a second stint as manager and he's got the country's record goalscorer, Robbie Keane, in his backroom team.

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Republic of Ireland soccer manager Mick McCarthy

He has been helped by an extremely fortuitous draw for the 2020 Euros - which will see matches held in 13 cities around Europe, including Dublin. We've avoided the so-called 'Group of Death', which features both Germany and the Netherlands. Instead we face Denmark (yet again), Switzerland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

But while rugby aficionados can point to a golden generation of players, Irish football has to choose from less illustrious stock. None of the current crop play for any of the Premier League's top crop. No fewer than five are plying their trade this season at Burnley, who have been hovering around the relegation places for months. After guiding Dundalk to domestic glory in recent years - including the league and cup double in 2018 - manager Stephen Kenny was appointed coach of the U21s and he will take over from McCarthy after the 2020 Euros.

It remains to be seen if his successor can ensure that the Louth club remain kings of Irish football or if their nearest challenger, Cork City, can reclaim the SSE Airtricity League title it won in 2017. Of the rest, it's perhaps Shamrock Rovers - the most decorated club in League of Ireland history - who may break the Dundalk-Cork City duopoly.

Special squad

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Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley, left, and Cian O'Sullivan celebrate with the Sam Maguire
 

2019 will be an intriguing year for Gaelic games. Can Dublin footballers win an unprecedented five-in-a-row? It looks highly likely, not least when one considers the ease with which they won the Sam Maguire Cup this year. Jim Gavin has nurtured a very special squad, some of whom do not know what it is like to lose at inter-county level.

But we've been here before. In 1982, the all-conquering Kerry team seeking five consecutive All-Irelands were denied in the dying seconds by Offaly. A handful of counties will be hoping that they can deny the Dubs immortality come September. Kerry will be among the favourites - despite seeing some of their brightest young talents lured away to Australian Rules - and the likes of Mayo (smarting after a disastrous 2018) and beaten finalists Tyrone will hope they can mount a serious challenge. Monaghan, the underdogs who impressed so many this year, will be aspiring to reach a first All-Ireland football final since 1930.

The final stages of the club football championship promise to be mouthwatering too thanks to the heartwarming stories of Donegal's Gaoth Dobhair and Longford's Mullinalaghta reaching the last four. The latter demonstrated that David sometimes beats Goliath when they shocked Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes to win the Leinster title.

If Gaelic football has always had a far wider reach than hurling, it's widely accepted that, of late, more counties have a chance of winning hurling's top prize than their big ball counterparts. This year, Limerick put paid to 45 years of hurt by winning the All-Ireland title in thrilling fashion, but there will be perhaps six other counties with a realistic chance of bagging the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2019.

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Limerick hurlers celebrate with the Liam MacCarthy Cup

The 2017 winners, Galway, were bitterly disappointed not to retain the trophy last year and they will be among the favourites to dethrone Limerick. Tipperary, with former All-Ireland winning manager Liam Sheedy back for a second bite of the cherry, will also be contenders. The fans of Cork, Clare and Waterford will be hopeful that 2019 could be their year too. And only the foolish would ever rule out Kilkenny's chances of winning the title, especially when the must successful GAA manager of them all, Brian Cody, is still at the helm.

In the hurling club championships, Kilkenny's Ballyhale Shamrocks will be favourites to land a seventh All-Ireland title, and first for manager Henry Shefflin, who will be among the leading candidates to replace the aforementioned Cody as county manager once he eventually steps down.

Team of the year

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Anna O'Flanagan and Gillian Pinder
 

After their exploits in the Hockey World Cup this summer, Ireland's beaten women finalists will hope to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Extra funding has been pumped into the sport - which will also benefit the men's team - and there will be greater interest than usual in the exploits of Chloe Watkins and Gillian Pinder, two of the stars of the recently crowned RTÉ Sport's Team of the Year.

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Rowers Paul and Gary O'Donovan

There will be hopes too that some of Ireland's other Olympic hopefuls can enjoy safe passage to the Games, not least those silver medalists from Rio, rowing brothers Gary and Paul O'Donovan and sailer Annalise Murphy. They will be hoping to win Ireland's first Olympic gold since Katie Taylor at London 2012.

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Sailor Annalise Murphy

Rower Sanita Puspure will also hope to continue the great run of form that saw her become world champion in the heavyweight women's single skulls. She will also have Tokyo in her sights.

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Rower Sanita Puspure

The coming year will also be a critical one for the country's top athletes. Thomas Barr narrowly missed out on a podium finish in Rio in 2016, but the 400m hurdler is coming into his peak age now and he will be hoping to demonstrate just what he's capable of in 2019.

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400m hurdler Thomas Barr

Irish female athletes will be hoping to bring the form shown in 2018 into the new year and there are many who may make the headlines, including middle distance runner Ciara Mageean, and young sprinter Gina Akpe-Moses.

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Boxer Kellie Harrington

But there's potentially very bad news for Irish boxing, in what has long been our most successful sport at the Olympics. There are real worries that it may not feature at the Tokyo games at all after the International Olympic Committee threatened to cut ties with the the International Boxing Association. Boxing's governing body has been on the ropes for several years as it has struggled to answer questions about its finances, governance and refereeing standards.

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Olympic hopeful Joe Ward

A new generation of Irish boxers will be hoping they get to wear the green vest in Japan in 2020. Joe Ward and Brendan Irvine have the potential to medal, as does Kellie Harrington, who won the gold medal in the lightweight division at the 2018 Women's World Boxing Championships last month.

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Olympic and World boxing champion Katie Taylor

Harrington has often spoken about her admiration for the pioneering Katie Taylor and Taylor herself will be keen to continue her unbeaten professional record into 2019. She will also hope that there are more significant opponents than the Finn, Eva Wahlstrom, whom she comprehensively beat over 10 rounds earlier this month.

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Jockey Rachael Blackmore

If Taylor helped change the public's perception about women competing in a 'man's sport', so too has Tipperary native Rachael Blackmore. The media-shy jump jockey has had an extraordinary 2018 and she has been on a run of form that is likely to continue well into 2019.

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