Eamonn Sweeney looks forward to the top 15 sporting events in '15
There mightn't be an Olympics or a soccer World Cup in 2015 but it still looks like one fascinating sporting year ahead.
Here, in order of preference, are the events I'm looking forward to the most over the next 12 months. A few of them may end up as damp squibs while there will also be some big moments, like Andy Lee's world title victory in 2014, which catch us by surprise. The unpredictability of sport is, after all, one of its great charms.
But it's pretty certain that come this time next year there'll have been a lot of excitement about most of the following fixtures. Here are my 15 for '15.
1 Rugby World Cup Final (October 31, Twickenham)
It's probably going to be the biggest match of the year in any sport but what makes it extra exciting is the possibility that Ireland will be there. The tournament has proved a reliable crusher of Irish hopes at the past but we'll be travelling with perhaps the best-equipped side in our history and playing on grounds we're familiar with. A win over France on October 11 in Cardiff would almost certainly enable Ireland to top the group and avoid the All Blacks till the decider. And if it all works out, the biggest D-Day in the history of sport in this country awaits. Believe.
2 Champions League Final (June 6, Olympiastadion, Berlin)
This one will be taking place on the anniversary of the actual D-Day and we can't rule out an actual England-Germany rematch. Chances are, however, that the winners of the last two competitions, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, will meet up to decide the outstanding side of this golden era of club football. Yet the track record of both Barcelona and Chelsea means they can't be discounted either, while the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain might well emulate surprise finalists from the past two years Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid, neither of whom for that matter should be written off just yet. There's a ton of great football to be played in this competition.
3 All-Ireland Hurling Final (September 6, Croke Park)
It would probably have seemed a safe bet this time last year that, whatever else happened, the 2014 All-Ireland final wouldn't reach the heights of the epochal pair of 2013 deciders. Instead things were even better. And who'd bet against more of the same this time round? Kilkenny remain the team to beat though recent retirements will give their rivals a glimmer of hope. The phenomenal talent of Clare's young team means that they should be back to themselves after last year's misfire while, for once, Tipperary should be favoured by neutrals after contributing so much to last year's championship and coming away empty-handed. A handy Munster draw should give Cork hope, while Limerick's defeat of Tipp and heroic semi-final defeat against Kilkenny showed they're not far away at all. This'll be a lot of fun.
4 US Masters (April 12, Augusta)
I'm looking forward to all the Majors of course but the Masters remains The Special One. There's also the added frisson of it being the only one Rory McIlroy hasn't won yet and last year he finally hinted at the type of Tiger-style dominance long predicted for him. If he wins at Augusta it may be a long season for his rivals but there are a horde of other up-and-comers right on McIlroy's tail. Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler will fly the American flag, the Australian pair of Adam Scott and Jason Day will be there or thereabouts, while the other two main European contenders look likely to be Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson who, incredibly, in a combined 30-plus seasons of professional golf have yet to win a single Major between them. Garcia finally breaking his duck might even be better than a McIlroy victory.
5 Ireland v Poland (March 29, Aviva Stadium)
This one could well decide not just whether Ireland qualify for the 2016 European Championships but whether the national team can retain any credibility. Lose to Poland at home and chances are we won't even make a play-off. Defeat them and there's every chance of a runners-up slot. So the stakes will be high for a team which, for the moment, has retained a lot of goodwill despite the disappointing defeat in Scotland. The feeling is that the boldness so conspicuously absent in Celtic Park will be restored by home advantage and a fervent crowd. We can only hope. I have a feeling that this night's gonna be a good, good night.
6 Ireland v England (March 1, Aviva Stadium)
Before the national rugby team gets around to the World Cup, there's the small question of trying to retain the Six Nations title for only the second time ever. The performances of France and Wales in the autumn internationals showed that this will be far from routine but it's England, our sole conquerors last term, who look likely to be our main rivals. The winners of this one look a good bet to take ultimate honours in the Six Nations. England, our whipping boys for a few glorious years in the noughties, have actually won four on the trot against Ireland so breaking the sequence before a possible World Cup meeting would be an added bonus. After 2013's record low scores, the 2014 championship saw the most tries since 2007 so the competition in general promises to be a cracker this year.
7 All-Ireland Football Final (September 20, Croke Park)
Though, given that the semi-finals have produced much better football than the final in the last three years, perhaps I've picked the wrong game. And there does seem to be a consensus that the football championship is less open than it has been for a long time with few pundits looking beyond a probable Kerry-Dublin final clash. But what do we know? This time last year, after all, we'd awarded the Dubs not just the 2014 title but those of 2015 and 2016 as well. So here's hoping there'll be a surprise package in the final or maybe a pair of them. Armagh v Galway, anyone?
8 Super Bowl (February 1, Phoenix, Arizona)
This offers an early-season opportunity for me to make a fool of myself as the two sides I fancy to make the Super Bowl in Phoenix, the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, were both playing Conference semi-finals last night and may, given the wonderful unpredictability of the NFL, have bitten the dust by the time you get to read this. With that in mind, I'll go easy on the predictions of a final pairing and merely observe that this evening's NFC semi-final clash between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys could well be the first classic sporting fixture of 2015. It's extremely unlikely that this year's Super Bowl will provide us with a repeat of last term's blowout victory for the Seahawks over the Denver Broncos, who I think will be upset tonight by the Indianapolis Colts. There you go, the first clanger of 2015.
9 Andy Lee's first world title defence (Date and venue to be decided)
But it may well be in March, it could be in Dublin and it should almost certainly be against British golden boy and number one contender Billy Joe Saunders. The undefeated Saunders is big box office in Britain but looked unconvincing when eking out a split decision over Chris Eubank Junior in November. So it might be both a very attractive and an eminently winnable fight for Lee who'll hardly want to give up his WBO middleweight title straight away. Expect Collins-Eubank senior levels of hype if this one comes off.
10 Conor McGregor v Jose Aldo (To be decided)
Our goateed hero has first to negotiate a bout this day week with Germany's Dennis Siver in Boston but he should win that and earn a world featherweight title shot against Brazil's Jose Aldo. Should that happen the hype will be extraordinary and we'll finally learn just how good McGregor is. Aldo is rated the second-best fighter pound for pound in the UFC and has defended his title successfully seven times. The hype will go off the charts for this one. UFC might be taking off big time over here but last year in North America attendances and pay-per-view figures slumped. They need McGregor to be the real thing.
11 Men's High Jump Final, World Athletics Championships (August 30, Beijing)
Last June in New York, Ukraine's Bohdan Bondarenko and Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim went head to head in an extraordinary competition which ended with them both clearing 2.42m, a height exceeded by only one man in history, the legendary Cuban Javier Sotomayor whose 2.45m world record has stood since 1993. Bondarenko won on countback that day but in September Barshim managed 2.43m to take second place on the all-time list. Their meeting in Beijing should be the showdown of the championships. Russia's Ivan Ukhov (2.41m last year) and Canada's Derek Drouin and Ukraine's Andriy Protsenko (both 2.40m) will ensure they won't have it their own way in what might be the greatest high jump competition of all-time.
12 Ireland v West Indies (February 16, Saxton Oval, Nelson)
Largely below the national sporting radar it has to be said, Ireland have consolidated their position as the best non-Test nation in world cricket over the past couple of seasons and go into the one-day World Cup finals as holders of the Intercontinental Cup and champions of its one-day equivalent, the World Cricket League. But it's going to require something very special to make the knockout stages in Australia. South Africa, India and Pakistan look likely to snap up three of the four qualifying places available in Pool B and Ireland's best chance of progress will be to turn over the sometimes flaky West Indies right at the start of the group stages. The Caribbean side will start as hot favourites but in William Porterfield, George Dockrell, Niall O'Brien, Paul Stirling and Ed Joyce, Ireland have players with the ability to repeat the upsets of 2007 against Pakistan and 2011 against England.
13 Gold Cup (March 13, Cheltenham)
All of this great festival is a highlight of course but the Gold Cup is especially mouth-watering after Lord Windermere's great late dash last year to win by a short head, becoming the first Irish winner since 2006. Jim Culloty's horse won't start at 20/1 this year but the one they all have to beat is short-odds favourite Silviniaco Conti, trained by Paul Nicholls and fourth last year but immensely impressive in winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen's Day. However, there's another serious Irish challenger in Noel Meade's Road To Riches which looked just as good when taking the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over the holiday period. In over 40 years as a trainer, the Meathman and seven-times Irish champion has yet to win a Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle. Stamina question marks notwithstanding, Road To Riches, with young Kerry genius Bryan Cooper in the saddle, might provide the festival with its emotional highlight.
14 European Showjumping C'ships (August 23, Aachen)
Wexford wunderkind Bertram Allen confirmed his immense promise last year by finishing seventh in the World Championships. Aged just 19, Allen is 15th in the world rankings and, given his impressive pedigree as a big-day performer, has every chance to be in the mix on the final day's jumping at the famous German venue. Standing in his way are the likes of Scotland's world number one Scott Brash, the powerful home trio of Ludger Beerbaum, Marcus Ehning and Daniel Deusser and reigning world champion Jeroen Dubbeldam of Holland. Denis Lynch, ninth in the worlds, and Darragh Kenny, 12th, are also in with a shout of a medal as are the Irish team who haven't made the podium since winning the title in 2001 at Arnhem.
15 Men's 800m Final (August 25, Beijing)
The idea of our European bronze medallist Mark English qualifying for the World Championship final might seem a bit far-fetched. The event is completely dominated by the Africans, isn't it? Well, not so much. Only four of the eight qualifiers in Moscow two years ago were African and two of the others, Poland's Marcin Lewandowski and France's Pierre Ambroise Bosse finished behind English in last year's European final. Everything will have to go exactly right for the Letterkenny tyro if he's to make another step forward into elite class but it's not wholly beyond him. Even if he doesn't make it, this final should offer the enthralling spectacle of the great Kenyan David Rudisha trying to gain revenge on Botswana's Nijel Amos who outkicked him to win last year's Commonwealth Games final and took the Diamond League title for good measure.
So there you are and I didn't even get the chance to mention what promises to be a thrilling tennis season for both men and women, the possible return of the Chicago Bulls to the NBA finals for the first time since Michael Jordan retired, a strong League of Ireland season where Dundalk, St Pat's, Shamrock Rovers and Cork City all look to have impeccable title claims, Faugheen's probable victory for Willie Mullins in the Champion Hurdle, the actual final of the cricket World Cup where there's a good chance home nation Australia will score an emotional victory at the MCG over reigning champions India and Kilmallock's shock win in the club hurling decider.
Maybe this year let's not worry too much about what someone said about somebody else on Twitter or in an autobiography or a column and instead focus on the stuff that happens on the field, the track, the course and the court and is sufficient for anyone to be going on with.
As Jennifer Lawrence says to Christian Bale in American Hustle, "Baby, there's such good stuff here."
Sunday Indo Sport