Ireland's Euro hopes dealt huge blow as Cullen ruled out
IRELAND'S chance of retaining the senior women's title at the upcoming European Cross-Country Championships has been dealt another blow when Mary Cullen was ruled out of the team after failing a fitness test.
Cullen's class and extensive cross-country experience would have considerably strengthened the team, led by defending champion Fionnuala Britton, who is chasing an unprecedented third title in a row.
The Sligo star did not race in the Irish trials recently as the selectors were giving her every chance to recover from a hamstring niggle.
But a 10-minute fitness test earlier this week indicated she is not 100pc ready and it was decided not to risk her.
Given Cullen's cross-country record -- fourth at the Europeans in 2008, 12th in '09, and 27th at the Worlds last year when she made her international return after a long lay-off -- it is a blow to Ireland's hopes of retaining last year's sensational team gold, particularly as three of Ireland's top-four finishers in 2012 are also out.
Linda Byrne, Ava Hutchinson and Lizze Lee -- who were eighth, 20th and 23rd respectively a year ago -- are all unavailable this year.
Maria McCambridge, who was first reserve after finishing sixth at the national inter-counties, will replace Cullen and brings unquestionable experience to the team for Belgrade on December 8.
Sarah McCormack and Sarah Treacy, who were 36th and 42nd in Budapest last year, are included again after making the top three at the 'nationals' and Ann-Marie Larkin and Ciara Durkin complete this year's team.
Joe Sweeney, who has dominated the domestic cross-country scene in recent years and was fifth in the Europeans two years ago, has also withdrawn as he is still feeling the after-effects of his recent marathon debut. This means Raheny's Mick Clohisey is elevated to the senior men's team.
Finn Valley's Sarah Collins is another big loss to the junior women's team.
She was Ireland's best junior ( 31st) last year and also the best-placed Irish athlete at US NCAA XC last weekend when she finished 39th and won a team gold with Providence College.
But that took a lot out of her and forced her to withdraw. She is replaced by DSD's Isabelle Odlum.
National endurance coach Chris Jones, who is also Britton's individual coach, said he had no worries about her form, despite the fact that she only finished seventh in her final tune-up race last weekend where a host of Africans and France's Sophie Duarte finished ahead of her.
"Her preparations have gone to plan," Jones said. "All that was missing last weekend was a bit of mental focus, which sometimes happens when you haven't been racing at that level, but that race will have sharpened up Fionnuala a lot."
He also defended Athletics Ireland's controversial decision not to send any athlete in the women's U-23 grade, not even national U-23 champion Mary Mulhare (Portlaoise).
"There are many quality endurance athletes competing at U-23 level, but we've identified that we need to bridge a gap to allow these athletes to be able to produce quality performances on the European stage and future plans will focus on this," he said.