Sportstar of the Year: Who will be first among equals?
Cast your vote for our Sportstar of the Year to be in with a chance of winning a fabulous weekend break
KATIE TAYLOR was a runaway winner in 2012, but the contest to succeed our Olympic champion as Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year in association with The Croke Park Hotel looks destined to be a case of first among equals.
Not since Tipperary hurler Nicky English took the inaugural award in 1989 has there been such an open field.
We have, for example, witnessed a return to the glory days of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche in the professional cycling peloton with this year's heroics of Roche's son Nicolas and his nephew Dan Martin.
By season's end, Martin had moved up to sixth in the UCI world rankings after a remarkable campaign during which he won a stage of the Tour de France, took the overall classification in the Volta a Catalunya, was fourth in the Tour of Lombardy and collected the revered one-day Liege-Bastogne-Liege Classic – only the second Irishman to do so after Kelly in '84 and '89.
His victory on stage nine of Le Tour was the first by an Irishman since Roche in '92 – he is only the fifth Irish stage winner in all, the other three being Kelly, Shay Elliott and Martin Earley.
In August, Nicolas Roche became only the third Irishman (after Elliott and Kelly) to lead the prestigious Vuelta a Espana – a race in which he won the second stage. The Irish Independent columnist thus trumped his own father – the former Tour de France winner, Giro d'Italia winner and world champion never led in Spain.
Irish boxing's incredible strike rate continued with the 'medal factory' overseen by Billy Walsh on the South Circular Road mining metal of all colours at major championships.
In June, bantamweight John Joe Nevin and middleweight Jason Quigley returned from Minsk as European senior champions, while Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes came home with silver, the latter denied a gold-medal shot only after fracturing his nose in the semi-final.
Four months later, Donegal's Quigley was on the podium again, this time in Kazakhstan, as Ireland's first World Championship silver medalist.
He was pipped for gold in the final, though the bronze won by 19-year-old Joe Ward at light-heavy made this Ireland's most successful return from the Worlds in our history.
Then, there was the inspiring story of Rob Heffernan, the Corkman claiming gold in the 50km walk at the World Athletics Championships – our first return to the top step of a world podium since Sonia O'Sullivan's 5,000m triumph in '95.
Heffernan's win arrived 30 years to the day after Eamonn Coghlan's famous 5,000m victory in Helsinki.
Fionnuala Britton, meanwhile, followed up her successful European Cross-Country Championship defence with a brilliant 3,000m bronze at the European Indoors in Gothenburg, becoming the first Irish athlete to win a medal at both championships. Sadly, a chest infection subsequently forced Britton to take an extended break from competition
Ireland's unique status in the horse racing world was further endorsed in both the Flat and National Hunt seasons.
Aidan O'Brien produced his fourth Epsom Derby winner, with Ryan Moore bringing home 7/1 shot Ruler Of The World, and the Ballydoyle supremo also saddled Magician to victories in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the Breeders' Cup.
Jim Bolger saddled Dawn Approach to his first 2,000 Guineas win in May and, one month later, he took the Irish Derby with Trading Leather – only his second triumph in the race – 21 years after the success of the great St Jovite.
Joseph O'Brien, meanwhile, broke Mick Kinane's 20-year-old record of 115 Flat winners in a season when he recorded an October treble in Navan, while father Aidan also broke Bolger's record for the number of Flat-trained winners in a season.
In National Hunt, Ireland returned an unprecedented 14 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, with Ruby Walsh enjoying an opening day hat-trick and leading trainer Willie Mullins particularly emotional after son Patrick's victory on Back in Focus.
However, Irish joy was profoundly compromised by the fall that left JT McNamara so seriously injured.
Then there was AP McCoy, whose historic 4,000th victory aboard Mountain Tunes at Towcester is a record that will surely never be surpassed.
Famous victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Aintree Grand National will ensure that McCoy's legacy is not one of merely numbers, but it is his willingness to grind out results at non-descript meetings on a daily basis that has defined him.
The rugby glory went to our national women's team, crowned Grand Slam champions after a St Patrick's Day mud-bath in Milan. Three of the heroines – Niamh Briggs, Alison Miller and Joy Neville – are weekly winners of the Irish Independent award.
There were fleeting individual moments from the men too: Brian O'Driscoll's sublime pass to Simon Zebo in Cardiff, Zebo's extraordinary back-heel flick at the same venue, a returning Paul O'Connell's Heineken Cup tour de force against Harlequins.
Then there were the GAA heroes. In September, a teenage genetics student from Ennis took the All-Ireland hurling final into the realm of schoolboy fantasy. Shane O'Donnell was told only hours before throw-in that he would be starting against Cork and responded by scoring a scarcely believable 3-3.
We had breakthrough provincial winners represented in our awards for Dublin's 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan and Limerick's Richie McCarthy, while Domhnall O'Donovan's extraordinary equaliser for Clare in the drawn All-Ireland final earned him one of our September awards.
In football, Bernard Brogan was again to the fore as Dublin broke Mayo hearts, leaving the Connacht men still chasing a first All-Ireland senior win since '51.
So now, it's over to you, our readers, to select the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year in association with The Croke Park Hotel.
Great athletes consistently produce personal bests in major championships. That has always been Derval O'Rourke's trademark and Sarah Lavin, who has been breaking O'Rourke's records at underage level, looks destined to follow in her footsteps.
The young Limerick sprint hurdles sensation from Emerald AC broke O'Rourke's Irish junior (U-20) indoor record last year and lowered it further in February. In June she broke O'Rourke's Irish junior outdoor record twice in one day in Geneva and lowered it twice more in July, most notably in the final of the European Junior Championships in Italy, where her life-time best of 13:34 earned a silver medal.
Clare hurling could hardly of dreamed of a more fruitful year and Kelly was one of the vital cogs as the Banner secured All-Ireland U-21 and senior honours.
All summer, Kelly treated us to his bag of tricks, each seemingly more outrageous than the last, and at all times there was substance to match his silky skills as Clare lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time since 1997.
Including this year's senior replay, the 19-year-old Ballyea man has already played in five All-Ireland finals and made history by becoming the first player to win the Young Hurler and Hurler of the Year awards at the recent All Stars ceremony. Remember the name.
McCaffrey embodied the new sense of adventure in the Dublin team that swept all before them.
Handed his championship debut as a sub by Pat Gilroy last summer, Jim Gavin opted to play the Clontarf ace from the start this year – not least because of McCaffrey's searing pace, which helped him make the left wing-back spot his own.
McCaffrey, who celebrated his 20th birthday on the day he won his first International Rules cap, delivered arguably his best performance in the All-Ireland quarter-final win against Cork when he capped a scintillating performance with a well-taken goal, before going on to receive the Young Footballer of the Year award.
Apart from those who follow Connacht schools rugby, few people had heard of Athlone's rising star at the start of last season.
Fresh out of school, the former Westmeath minor footballer took to professional rugby like a duck to water and is now a key member of Pat Lam's team. He is also an Irish international after Les Kiss made him the fourth teenager to play for Ireland since rugby went professional by capping him against the United States and Canada.
Despite his youth, the full-back/centre combines power and pace with astute tactical ability and defensive nous and his strong running has made him a fans favourite at the Sportsground.
Less than two years after being crowned champion conditional jockey with a record 37 winners, Cooper took the Cheltenham Festival by storm with a sensational treble that was spearheaded by Our Conor's devastating Triumph Hurdle victory.
A fresh-faced 20-year-old at the time, he then coaxed a breathtaking exhibition of jumping out of First Lieutenant for his next famous Grade One success at Aintree. Two days later, he stole the show on the early part of the Grand National card by plundering a shock pillar-to-post victory on Special Tiara.
Happily, he is now back in action after being sidelined for four months with a broken leg.
The Croke Park Hotel, Dublin
Whether it's All-Ireland final day or some of the world's great entertainers coming to town, The Croke Park Hotel gives you a ringside view of the build-up that's impossible to beat.
And it's not just the hotel's proximity to Ireland's 'Field of Dreams' that sets it apart.
Our staff share in the guests' sense of excitement – whether it's for a sporting or entertainment event – and their friendly, upbeat mood is an integral part of the backdrop to the occasion.
Apart from being at the heart of the action in terms of sport, concerts and business, The Croke Park Hotel also gives you easy access to the broader tourist and cultural attractions of our capital city.
In addition to the warmth and welcoming guest experience that The Croke Park Hotel offers, it also supports its guests' local GAA clubs.
As part of our GAA Club Support Programme, the hotel donates 5pc of each guest's bill to their nominated GAA club.
For further information, visit doylecollection.com/crokepark or call (01) 8714444.