Thursday 17 January 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Wishful thinking of a romantic fool - here are ten sporting hopes for 2019'

Ireland have a team sprinkled with world class performers and a squad of enviable strength in depth. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ireland have a team sprinkled with world class performers and a squad of enviable strength in depth. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It might seem ungrateful to submit another wish list just a few weeks after sending my letter to Santa. But, as Martha and the Muffins once confessed, 'I can't help it, I'm a romantic fool.' This could be the greatest year in Irish sporting history and a nifty one internationally. All that's required is for these 10 wishes to come true.

1 Ireland to win the Rugby World Cup

This would beat all previous Irish sporting victories. And for the first time it's a possibility. Not a probability as despite their loss in Dublin the All Blacks remain favourites. That they'll be seeking a third win in a row shows their ability to negotiate this tournament. Ireland, on the other hand, have suffered one disaster after another in the finals. Yet there is a sense that the whole of Joe Schmidt's reign has been leading to this six weeks in Japan. Ireland have a team sprinkled with world class performers and a squad of enviable strength in depth. But they also have a tricky draw with a likely quarter-final meeting against South Africa, the other main contenders for the title, a massively demanding assignment. Yet this team have been distinguished by their ability to persistently rise to the occasion. For as long as they keep going this really will be Rugby Country.

2 The Hurling Championship to be even better than last year

On first sight this seems an impossible request. Yet after every pulsating weekend last year we told ourselves things couldn't get any better. And they always did as the greatest championship of all-time maintained its breakneck pace to the end. Why shouldn't it be even better this year? Limerick will be challenged by three teams who'll think they left it behind them last year - a Galway team who lost the hunger of 2017 but have the finest set of players in the game, a Cork side who at times last year looked the best team in the championship and Clare whose failure to put away Galway in the semi-final is one of hurling's great sorrowful mysteries. A Tipp side caught on the hop early on and a young Kilkenny side on the up can't be discounted either. This will be pure pleasure.

3 A great Premier League title race (won by Liverpool)

When Manchester City won last season's Premier League title in record breaking style, they seemed set to embark on a spell of Bayern Munich-type dominance. The start of this season did little to disprove that prediction. Yet we began 2019 with City trailing Liverpool who have not just challenged them but done so in the most exhilarating fashion. The Anfield faithful are an emotional bunch at the best of times and this tendency has been fanned to fever pitch by Jurgen Klopp's heart-on-the-sleeve style and his team's all-action top-speed approach. Their battle with Guardiola's City should match the titanic Manchester United-Arsenal clashes which had seemed a ne plus ultra of Premier league rivalry. Should Liverpool's 29-year wait end in May the celebrations will be the most passionate of the sporting year.

4 Rory McIlroy to win the British Open

That the Open is coming to Ireland for the first time since 1951 is special enough. But imagine what it would be like if McIlroy was to lift the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush. Wouldn't it be the perfect place to end the Major drought he's endured since 2014 and restore his reputation as a man for the big occasion? A McIlroy win on home soil isn't the only possible emotional highlight of what promises to be another enthralling year. Should a renascent Tiger Woods win a first Major in 12 years it would be the comeback story of the decade. Magic may happen at Augusta in April.

5 Presenting Percy to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup

When Presenting Percy won the Pertemps Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago it was a heartwarming triumph for Craughwell's Pat Kelly, the archetypal small trainer with a handful of horses hitting it big at the Festival. When he won the RSA Chase last year in hugely impressive style people really started to take notice. Now, with three months to go, Presenting Percy is favourite for the biggest chase of them all, though he hasn't run since that RSA victory. Should be live up to top billing there could be no more romantic winner. He'll have to see off a horde of rivals, among them the improving Kemboy who'll be bidding to finally break the incomparable Willie Mullins' inexplicable Gold Cup duck. Cheltenham will, as always, be a wonder with nothing more wonderful than the invincible Altior who'll seek a second Champion Chase on the trot and exudes greatness every time he takes the track.

6 Ireland's cricketers making history at Lord's

Lord's is one of the world's great sporting venues and one whose symbolic significance as the 'Home of Cricket' has always carried great weight for nations seeking to establish themselves in the Test arena. A decade ago the idea that Ireland would take on England in a Test match there would have seemed a ludicrously optimistic pipe dream. Yet it'll happen from July 24 to July 27 when Ireland face an England side warming up for the Ashes series against Australia. Ireland exceeded expectations when giving Pakistan plenty of it during their first ever Test match last summer and should raise their game again in London. They've also got a Test against Afghanistan and one day matches against England, West Indies and Bangladesh to look forward to.

7 Sydney McLaughlin lighting it up in Doha

The girl from New Jersey was 18 when she ran a 400m hurdles time which was more than half a second better than that of anyone else last year. Her 52.75 is less than half a second shy of a world record by Russia's Yuliya Nosova-Pechonkina set 16 years ago. McLaughlin will turn 20 just before the world championships begin in Doha with the final of her event slated for October 1. She could be the star athletics needs as the post-Bolt era begins. The Americans will be fielding some spectacular young talent with Christian Campbell (22) favourite for the 100m and the 21-year-old pair of Noah Lyles and Michael Norman leading contenders for 200m and 400m gold.

8 Another great Super Bowl

The last two Super Bowls may well have been the two most exciting ever played and chances are we'll see something similar on February 3 in Atlanta after a season where offences have once more dominated the NFL.

Making things especially intriguing is the absence of an obvious favourite. A New Orleans Saints team driven on by 39-year-old quarterback Drew Brees heads the betting, but at least half a dozen teams have realistic chances. The most exciting contenders are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams who, in Patrick Mahomes and Todd Gurley, respectively have the league's two most explosive offensive talents. Perennial contenders the New England Patriots can't be discounted while I've a sneaking suspicion that the winner of tonight's must-see clash between the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Chargers won't be far away at the end.

9 A new era in women's tennis

Serena Williams' behaviour in the final of last year's US Open showed how damaging it can be when one player utterly dominates a sport. Her tantrums during that defeat to Naomi Osaka showed that Williams considered herself bigger than the game. She's not. Williams will still be a major force this year but will have serious rivals, chief among them the 21-year-old Osaka, Angelique Kerber who defeated Williams in last year's Wimbledon final, world number one Simona Halep, whose French Open victory answered questions over her ability to perform under pressure and the resurgent Caroline Wozniacki.

Keep an eye out for two talented youngsters with breakthrough potential, Russian clay court specialist Dara Kasatkina and big hitting Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka. This is a remarkable time for women's tennis. In 2017 and 2018 eight different players won the Grand Slam events, the first ever such sequence in the sport's history.

10 A couple of wonder horses

It's a while since we've seen a really remarkable three-year-old, but John Gosden's Too Darn Hot has drawn comparisons with the peerless Frankel after an unbeaten two-year-old season. That's high praise but Too Darn Hot did look phenomenally impressive when winning the Dewhurst Stakes and is a hot favourite for the 2000 Guineas and the Derby. It's time we had another Classic winner who can give us something commensurate with our capacity for wonder. Gosden also trains the great filly Enable who in October will bid to become the first horse to win three Prix de L'Arc de Triomphes in a row.

Ten out of ten and it'll be the greatest sporting year of my life. Eight and it'll be great and six will still make it very good. I'll surely get at least five of them up. Though who knows, as 2018 was one of the great years and a lot of its highlights could scarcely have been foreseen. So here's hoping 2019 also holds surprises like the women's hockey team, Croatia's run to he World Cup final and the Miracle of Mullinalaghta. As Santa knows, the surprise presents are sometimes the best.

Dublin dominance of a poor championship fills me with dread for my once favourite event

Ada J Blenkhorn of Cleveland, Ohio had a good point when, in 1899, she advised listeners to ‘Keep On The Sunny Side Of Life’. On the other hand, anyone who ignores the presence of clouds is liable to one day find themselves stranded in a downpour while wearing a T-shirt and shorts. So here are the things I’m not looking forward to in 2019.

1 The All-Ireland Football Championship

Not just because of Dublin’s dominance and not just because of the boring, negative style adopted by most teams. The former would be bearable if it occurred in an entertaining championship and the latter wouldn’t matter so much if Sam Maguire’s destination was anything other than a formality. But taken together they make a kind of perfect storm which leads me to dread the championship that once was my favourite event of the Irish summer.

It was obvious this time last year that Dublin would win four in a row. It’s obvious now that they’ll make that five. And the caterwauling from managers about rule changes designed to make the game a little less tedious shows they regard attempts to stem the tide of boredom as a kind of cultural insensitivity. Kevin Walsh blames ‘pundits’ for the antipathy fans feel towards the current manifestation of a once great game. He and others like him should look at the manager in the mirror.

2 Boxing having its name dragged through the mud

On the one hand you have an organisation which controls most of Ireland’s professional fighters imposing a media ban in the Republic of Ireland because mention had been made of its previous links with organised crime. On the other you have the world governing body for amateur boxing electing as president a man linked with organised crime. MTK’s attitude gravely detracts from the standing of its fighters who run the risk of being forgotten by a public with plenty of other heroes to hail. The AIBA election could see boxing excluded from the Olympics which would be a hammer blow for the legion of promising Irish youngsters winning world and European medals right now. Pity the sport held in the grubby paws of such people.

3 Finding Another Irishman

I hold out little hope for Mick McCarthy’s reign as Irish manager. But what makes it even more disheartening is his enthusiasm about trying to persuade English players to sign up for this country. There are pragmatic if inglorious reasons for the pursuit of Declan Rice. But do we really need Nathan Redmond, who’s got 77 underage and one England senior cap? Or Patrick Bamford? Did we really need Callum Robinson or David McGoldrick or similar journeymen who denied caps to actual Irish players? This shameless pursuit of players who only resort to Ireland as a fallback position serves to increase cynicism about a team whose reputation is low enough as it is. If we’re only going to be a third-rate England, why have a national team at all?

4 McGregor Mania

The build-up and the aftermath of Conor McGregor’s fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov encapsulated how the UFC expertly manages to bring out the worst in human nature. Where the Dublin fighter once seemed a vibrant new addition to the sporting scene he now resembles the bedraggled protagonist of an increasingly sordid soap opera. Whatever the merits of MMA itself, its premier showcase is a horror show. Sleaziness and authenticity are not the same thing.

5 Hatefulness

In 2019 there’ll be brawls and attacks on referees at GAA matches which defensive county boards will sweep under the carpet. There’ll be doping violations which won’t be punished either because of a lack of will or because impossibly high standards of proof have been set. Plenty more footballers will have to run a gauntlet of hate from fans who think paying for a ticket entitles them to level any kind of personal abuse they want to. More underpaid workers will die as the Qatar World Cup stadiums are built. Premier League clubs will continue paying their catering staff a pittance and charge several hundred pounds for the privilege of being a matchday mascot. Blokey betting ads will disfigure many TV sporting events and cajole youngsters into ruinous wagering. And it looks like Maroon 5 will be doing the half-time show at the Super Bowl.

Getting to the Games can be half the battle

For quite a few Irish sports stars, 2019 will represent a means to an end, the end being a place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Some will be striving for the requisite times while others will have qualification tournaments to be negotiated or sufficiently high placings at major championships to be pursued.

Sometimes just getting to the Games can be half the battle. In September 2015 a virtually unknown pair of rowers scraped the last qualifying place by 0.28 of a second when finishing fifth in the B final of the world championship lightweight double sculls in France. Less than a year later Gary and Paul O’Donovan were Olympic silver medallists and are now favourites for gold in Tokyo.

Plenty of hopefuls will try to create a similar rags to riches story in the next 18 months as the Trip to Tokyo begins in earnest. Ireland will even be hosting an Olympic qualification tournament in beach volleyball which takes place at Bettystown on the June bank holiday weekend. Hang on while I check the spelling of ‘admirable optimism’.

* * * * *

The Irish women’s hockey team will be the subject of unaccustomed public scrutiny over the coming year following last year’s astounding world silver medal. There’s no danger of them resting on their laurels as this year they’ll be attempting to break new ground by qualifying for the Olympics for the first time. Their journey begins in the World Hockey Series event in Dublin in June where the top two teams will qualify for a final play-off later in the year. Ireland should make it through without too much bother but the play-offs could be another nail-biter with the Indian and Spanish teams they defeated in shoot-outs during last year’s World Cup among their possible opponents. Only 12 teams qualify for the Olympics. This isn’t the European football championships.

* * * * *

One notable dry spell which may end in 2019 is that endured by Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup. Ice hockey may be the national game up there but the once mighty Canadian clubs have had to watch ultimate honours being won by big-spending American teams.

The last victory was secured by the Montreal Canadiens back in 1993 and a nadir was reached two years ago when no club from the country made the play-offs. It’s all looking different this term with the Toronto Maple Leafs currently second favourites for the title and the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames topping their divisions.

The unglamorous Jets, described by ESPN as “your classic blue collar team playing in a blue collar small market Canadian city” are famous for their fanatical supporters who saw the franchise up sticks to Atlanta in 1997 before returning in 2011. They’re underdogs well worth adopting in 2019.

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