Monday 18 December 2017

Box-off fiasco stopped Irish in their tracks

Administrative hubris hindered our boxers' prospects in Baku, writes Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's easy to accentuate the positive when you look at the Irish performances over the past week in the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Baku because the three fighters who qualified for the London Olympics all achieved significant personal triumphs.

Bantamweight John Joe Nevin's feat in becoming the first Irish boxer ever to win multiple world medals made him the star of the show and marked him out, with the exception of the great Katie Taylor, as the country's main medal hope in London next year.

Nevin was unfortunate not to improve on his bronze medal two years ago, losing on countback in a semi-final against England's Luke Campbell where he had made most of the running. The Mullingar man has been on the wrong end of a couple of questionable decisions in recent years. Should the rub of the green go his way in London, a gold medal is not beyond his compass.

Nevin is also a fine standard-bearer for the community from which he springs, a community customarily dismissed with a casual bigotry which is perhaps the ugliest feature of contemporary Irish life. One would hope that Irish Travellers might walk with an extra spring in their step this week because of the achievements of the little guy from Cavan Boxing Club.

Darren O'Neill's qualification in the middleweight division was noteworthy because the Paulstown boxer had been struggling with a hand injury which at one stage made it look like he might miss out on the championships altogether. In the circumstances his wins over former world medallist Mohamad Hikal of Egypt and former European medallist Mladen Manev of Bulgaria were remarkable. He was unlucky to run into the sensational Japanese fighter Ryota Murata, who had knocked out world number one Abbas Atoev of Kazakhstan earlier in the competition, in the quarter-finals but a fully fit O'Neill will have a chance to make the podium in London.

O'Neill's achievement owes a great deal to his father and trainer Ollie, who was one of the main protestors against the IABA's lunatic decision to restrict the World Championships team to those who participated in an ill-advised series of box-offs. Had the IABA not backpedalled both Nevin and O'Neill, who missed the box-offs, mightn't have been in Baku at all and Ireland could have been restricted to just one qualifier.

And that qualifier would have been Michael Conlan, the Belfast teenager whose jump into world class was the big bonus last week. Conlan announced his arrival as a new star by defeating world number two, the highly experienced Nordine Ourbali of France, to reach the quarter-finals and make the Olympics. He followed this up with a terrific performance against European champion Andrew Selby of Wales, losing out by just a single point. Conlan has come a long way since winning his first national senior title earlier this year and has every chance of testing the metal detectors at Belfast Airport in 2012.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to entirely eliminate the negative. Although head coach Billy Walsh reached his target of three qualifiers in Azerbaijan, the seedings suggested we could have had seven. In the circumstances, three is slightly underwhelming. Our joint ninth position in terms of qualifiers would be highly praiseworthy were it achieved by any other Irish sporting team at a world championships. But we have come to expect more from the boxers.

After placing second in the medal table at last year's European Championships and third this year, it's somewhat disappointing to see us slipping to the status of sixth best European team behind Russia, the Ukraine, Italy, England and Azerbaijan.

Just four months ago in Ankara, the Ukraine could only manage two bronze European medals. Last week they qualified six boxers for the Olympics. Italy, who managed a solitary bronze at last year's Europeans, sent five through in Baku. Those teams boxed above themselves; ours, for once, didn't.

There were disappointing performances from European champions lightweight Ray Moylette, beaten comprehensively in his first bout, and light-heavyweight Joe Ward, our big medal hope for London, eliminated by an unknown Iranian, light-flyweight Paddy Barnes, who was well beaten by a teenage Filipino fighter trounced in his next fight, and from heavyweight Kenneth Egan and super-heavyweight Con Sheehan, both stopped by fighters who didn't figure in the medals.

Why this sudden dip in performance? One can only speculate but the most notable difference in the preparation for this championships was the disharmony provoked by the IABA's policy on box-offs.

In a competition where small margins can mean the difference between success and failure, Ward missed Olympic qualification on countback, the uncertainty over team selection may have proved crucial.

No matter how much talent you have at your disposal, messing behind the scenes can have a disastrous effect on young sportsmen.

The guys in the ring ended up paying the price for administrative hubris. Ward, Barnes and Co have one more crack at qualification, in Istanbul next April when they'll need to make the top four. Let's hope they're helped rather than hindered.

Sunday Indo Sport

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