O'Rourke targets 10th title as 'old guard' take centre stage
A GANG of teen tyros thrilled the crowd at last year's Woodies DIY National Championships, but it looks likely that it will be Ireland's world-class 'old guard' who will provide the highlights over the next two days at the Morton Stadium in Santry.
Mark English, Paul Robinson, Ciara Mageean, Kate Veale, Thomas Barr and Claire Fitzgerald (winning a first shot title in her 'throws' double) were all still only teenagers when bagging their first senior successes last August, with Barr's older sister Jessie having just turned 21.
Ferrybank's 400m hurdles siblings underlined their massive potential on an even bigger stage at the European Championships a week ago.
But the fact that the World Juniors are taking place next week, removes many rising underage stars this weekend as Ireland's 15-strong team for this event departs for Barcelona today.
This includes Veale, Karl Griffin, Ruairi Finnegan, Marcus Lawler, Joanna Mills, Sarah Lavin, Ben Kiely, Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner and Sean Tobin, while English is stopping off in Madrid tonight en route to try and achieve the Olympic qualifying standard in the 800m.
World junior silver medallist Mageean, who ran a season's best 4:10.7 in Stockholm on Thursday night, is also missing as she is racing in Finland in her bid to get the Olympic standard by tomorrow night's deadline.
Olympic hopefuls Steven Colvert and Thomas Barr didn't get the weather they were hoping for in Liege on Thursday and are expected to throw the dice one last time at the Nationals. Colvert, however, may yet race again in Europe tonight.
European 400m finalist Brian Gregan is definitely out of the Santry meeting as he's got into a high-class field in Madrid tonight in his last-gasp bid to get that elusive 45.30.
The Dublin weather forecast is bad, but Athenry sprint legend Paul Hession ran his 20.30 Irish record at the Nationals in 2007 and ran 20.51 there last year to qualify for London.
Hession is only running the 100m this year, which should be a fascinating battle between himself and two in-a-row champion Jason Smyth and Colvert (if he's involved). Dean Adams, David Hynes and Oliver Black are also included here.
Amy Foster, who won a sprint double last year, will be favourite in the women's 100m, where schools stars Phil Healy and Cliodhna Manning join the mix.
Lisburn's reigning champion will face former 200m champion Joanne Cuddihy in the longer sprint as the Kilkenny star is definitely running 200m and may yet double up at 400m.
A lot of reputations will be at stake in the women's 400m either way, as it will definitely involve the rest of the Olympic relay team.
Without David Gillick (who has called it quits for the season) and Gregan, Brian Murphy is odds on to defend the men's 400m title.
Derval O'Rourke (racing in Dusseldorf tonight) will be chasing her 10th hurdles title, Deirdre Ryan, a ninth in high jump, and Tori Pena a third-in-a-row in the pole vault.
The women's 1500m will feature two more Olympic qualifiers (Fionnuala Britton and Stephanie Reilly), but overall just seven of the 18 individuals who have qualified for London will be on show.
The walkers are all abroad warm-weather training, marathon man Mark Kenneally is just coming off a 10km at the Europeans and there is no 10,000m for the women's marathoners.
Two other marquee names absent are US-based Ciaran O'Lionaird and Alistair Cragg.
O'Lionaird is back on track after a recent Achilles problem and a coaching switch, while Cragg has also recently changed coaches to US steeplechase record holder Dan Lincoln.
It is no longer compulsory to run at the Nationals to secure international selection, but Athletics Ireland's (AAI) agreement with the Olympic Council does stipulate that AAI must "monitor, and, if necessary, test" their nominated athletes "in order to ensure that his/her current form is of a standard to perform at the Olympic Games."
Given that O'Lionaird hasn't raced since the World Indoors in March and Cragg only once (June 2) in the last 10 weeks, it looks likely that both will be asked to prove their fitness elsewhere in the coming fortnight if they are to compete in London.
Even with English missing, the National 800m and 1500m finals should be thrillers, and former 800m champion David Campbell has thrown an intriguing curve-ball by opting for the 10,000m.