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Monday 22 July 2019

Roy Curtis' top ten Irish athletes of 2018 - Johnny Sexton and Stephen Cluxton battle for top spot

Johnny Sexton (left) and Stephen Cluxton (right).
Johnny Sexton (left) and Stephen Cluxton (right).

Roy Curtis

SOMETIMES, the depth of achievement in a sporting year is best illustrated by those who miss out on end-of-year lists.

Emphatically, that is the case in this Top Ten Irish Athletes of 2018.

This is a catalogue without the towering rugby sensation, James Ryan; minus golden rowers Sanita Puspure and the irascible O’Donovan brothers, Gary and Paul.

Sam Bennett won three stages of the Giro D’Italia, Dan Martin was named most combative rider on the Tour de France. Joe Canning soared all summer long.

All were outstanding, inspirational in a vintage year of high achievement.

You will agree with some on our list, disagree with others. l What is indisputable however, is that the names included on this list are a spectacular reminder of just how special a year it was for Irish sport.

10. Davy Russell

THE East Cork pilot enjoyed a magic carpet ride from Cheltenham to Aintree. Leading jockey at the Festival, where his four winners included the current Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy, he was masterful aboard tiny Tiger Roll in the Grand National. That it came in the Gigginstown silks marked a moment of stunning redemption for a jockey who, four years earlier, had been cruelly and inexplicably relieved of his role as Michael O’Leary’s retained jockey

9. Ayeisha McFerran

THE 22-year-old became the masked face of Irish hockey’s refusal to bow to unpromising World Cup odds. Her exploits in penalty shootouts against India and Spain established her as a millennial Packie Bonner. Ireland’s reward, unthinkable at a tournament they began seeded 15 of the 16 teams, was a place in the World Cup final. McFerran was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament.

T-7. Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington

IT IS so easy to take for granted the high-voltage genius that sets Bray’s empress of the sweet science apart. In 2018, Katie’s intent to build a professional career to match the Manhattan skyline of her high-rise amateur achievements loomed ever more clearly into focus. A career best pay-for-play display at the iconic Madison Square Garden utterly bamboozled Eva Wahlstrom. Taylor’s speed of light movement, the luscious violence of her body shots, her sheer mastery of her trade had the famous arena on Pennsylvania Plaza swaying.

It spoke of a prizefighter, already the IBF and WBA lightweight champion, focused on unifying the division. Precious few are the number of world champions forged in the crucible of Irish sport. In New Delhi, Harrington (below left), the girl from Portland Row, a silver medallist in 2016, minted the most precious sporting metal at the Amateur World Championships. On her joyous homecoming to Dublin’s North Inner City, she raised her medal and delivered the most beautiful quote of the sporting year. “Here’s my blood, sweat and tears,” said the triumphant fighter who followed Taylor and Michael Conlon to become Ireland’s third amateur world champion.

6. Graeme Mulcahy

LIMERICK’S electrifying uprising had as many constituent parts as a body has bloodcells. From Nicky Quaid’s pickpocketing of Seamus Harnedy to Cian Lynch’s portrait of unhurried elegance to the sibling highlight reel of the Morrissey brothers. Yet, without Mulcahy, the name of Limerick could not now so ornately decorate the pages of sporting history.

When a gust of Galway turbulence illuminated the fasten seat-belt signs, it was his point for the ages that restored calm. It announced that nobody, not even the latesurging defending champions, was going to extinguish Limerick’s unforgettable fire. It was the perfect exclamation mark on a summer when Mulcahy continuously fired eyecatching scores with the apparent ease of someone plucking berries on a country lane.

T-4. Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny

IF DUBLIN splintered all resistance to nothing, it was their conjoined boys of summer wielding the axe. Even in moments of acute turbulence, Fenton sails as gracefully as a stately Tall Ship across the September oceans; he is the godfather of easy-on-the-eye flair. A simple measure of how the sweet magic pouring from his feet casts a spell – after just four seasons of Sundays, his reputation has clacked upwards through the floors beyond Brian Mullins, to the midfield penthouse, alongside, to some perhaps even ahead of, the great Jack O’Shea. Beside him, Kilkenny is all-seeing playmaker, the ginger Modric, the Eye of Sauron. He stitches together the tapestry, embroidering each performance with wisdom and unrivalled decision making. It is hardly a coincidence that the summer he lost to injury, 2014, marked the only time Jim Gavin’s Dublin untouchables revealed anything resembling an Achilles’ heel.

3. Peter O'Mahony

IRISH sport’s artisan warrior-prince. O’Mahony performs like a man whose life would be silent without the music of battle. Days like that shuddering November slaying of the All Blacks touch us because they tell stories. The most eloquent that night was the one that revealed the visceral, unyielding belligerence of O’Mahony, the refusal to bow, a salivating Visigoth at the gates of Rome.

Here was a wounded soldier declining to leave the battlefield, armed with a fierce desire to write his own ending. It was the most intoxicating one-night show by any Irish athlete in 2018.

2. Stephen Cluxton

IT IS not just because he has brought his chosen code to a new dimension that Cluxton is deserving of a 21-gun salute. With a sixth All-Ireland, a fifth as captain and a fourth in a row, recalibrating the yardstick of excellence, Dublin’s eternal keeper of the Sky Blue flame slipped his name through the letter box of sporting legend.

Now 37, he is so much more than a miracle of longevity, more than football’s most striking listed building; he is City Hall, a wise owl bringing to the summer courtroom the last-word authority of a Supreme Court justice.

And still, the curators of the All-Star gallery fail to recognise the masterpiece of achievement sitting before them.

1. Johnny Sexton

IRELAND’S peerless touchstone – quarterback; maestro; crotchety head of quality-control; and, in the moment of that cold, dramatic, buzzerbeating, miraculous Paris rescue act, unflappable commandant of the Grand Slam salvation army. Sexton burst through the ozone in 2018 on his excursion to another universe of achievement. The most influential performer on the planet’s outstanding team.

When all appeared lost in France, behind enemy lines, he did what great champions do, reaching down to locate the kill-shot, a dreamy, mood-altering drop-goal that flew in a perfect arc, lacerating the Gallic cerebral cortex.

Against the All Blacks he delivered another masterclass, his relationship with reigning World Player of the Year, Beauden Barrett, that of an insurgent who recognises the moment to seize the title deeds to the kingdom has arrived.

Even if he was uniformed in international green or club blue, he announced himself in 2018 as the gold standard.

Online Editors

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