Tuesday 22 January 2019

Underperforming Irish face questions after 'challenging week'

Only one other team member – 400m runner Brian Gregan – could crack the top 20. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Only one other team member – 400m runner Brian Gregan – could crack the top 20. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Dress it up any way you want, but this was a bad championships for the Irish. One of the worst.

If the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade this year was poor - the Irish team's inability to compete without our best laid bare at what is essentially an entry-level competition - then this was worse.

There was no shortage of quality in the 11-strong team, with the finest athletes we have produced in recent years - Thomas Barr, Ciara Mageean, Mark English and Rob Heffernan - all going with hopes of taking a seat at the top table.

But of those only Heffernan could crack the top 10, and only one other team member - 400m runner Brian Gregan - could crack the top 20.

Of course there were reasons, legitimate ones, why many underperformed, and if that sounds like the same old shield of excuses being raised, it's worth remembering that Ireland has no divine right to be winning medals at this level. Given our population and relative lack of funding compared to other, all that can truly be expected is for them to give it the good ol' college try.

Which sounds a lot like loser talk, but winning medals in a global sport like this is as difficult and rare as reaching a World Cup quarter-final in soccer. We shouldn't ever expect it, but it'd be nice all the same. It was always going to be tough. Thomas Barr and Mark English arrived in London off the back of injury-riddled seasons, Ciara Mageean had looked flat on her most recent outing at Irish Nationals, while only the deluded could really pretend Rob Heffernan's performance arc was heading anywhere but south at the age of 39.

Barr squeezed through his heat of the 400m hurdles, but if it proved more difficult than expected we soon found out why - the vicious strain of norovirus doing the rounds here was already incubating in his system, one which would have him quarantined in his hotel room the following evening instead of lining up in a world semi-final. English and Mageean simply didn't have it in their respective heats, both bowing out in the first round, while Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner did likewise in the women's 800m.

The marathons surprisingly produced two superb runs, with Mick Clohisey coming home 22nd in the men's race in 2:16:21 and Claire McCarthy 33rd in the women's. Seán Hehir refused to cling to excuses after trailing home 63rd in the men's marathon, but his frantic vomiting afterwards showed that he was far from right.

A hamstring injury stole Brendan Boyce's chance before he could toe the line in the 50km race walk, where Heffernan acquitted himself well to finish eighth. No joy, though, for Alex Wright, who was disqualified in the 20km race walk after his third card for lifting.

"We need a thorough post-championships review not just from a performance perspective but a team management and services perspective," said Paul McNamara, Athletics Ireland's high performance director yesterday. "We all knew it was going to be a challenging week. We knew where we were seeded and what the likely outcomes were. More often than not they delivered."

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