Friday 24 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney looks forward to the sporting events that will captivate in 2016

Can Ireland secure their first ever win over the All Blacks in November
Can Ireland secure their first ever win over the All Blacks in November
Can Ruby Walsh and Djakadam deliver a first Cheltenham Gold Cup for Willie Mullins in March? Picture: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The unpredictability of sport means that previews of the year ahead are to a certain extent hostages to fortune. This time last year it's fair to say no-one would have imagined Ireland's Rugby World Cup campaign fizzling out in quite the way it did or that one of the highlights of the year would be the soccer team's home tie against Germany.

We could see how big McGregor-Aldo was going to be, but not how short. And the emotional high point which would have been an Andy Lee title defence in Thomond Park was replaced by a damp squib disappointment in Manchester.

So this column belongs to the realm of conjecture rather than that of prophecy. It's a safe bet that there'll be great stuff at the Olympics, some of the others are slightly more questionable.


Australian Open Tennis Championships, Jan 18-31

Winning the tennis Grand Slam is one of the great achievements in world sport. It's only been done by three women, Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf and two men, Don Budge and Rod Laver, who did it twice. Yet last year Novak Djokovic came within one match of the Grand Slam, while Serena Williams fell just two short. Both look capable of having a good shot at it again and they begin their climb of the tennis Everest at Melbourne in a fortnight's time. Djokovic's main danger should be Andy Murray, four times a runner-up in Australia, whose heroics in securing the Davis Cup for Britain paradoxically underlined his underachievement in the majors, of which he has won just two. It's more difficult to pinpoint a serious rival for Williams as women's tennis could really do with a new up-and-coming star. Spanish 22-year-old Garbine Muguruza, who took the American to three sets last year in Melbourne and gave her a good match in the Wimbledon final, may fit the bill and her progress will be one of the most interesting things in tennis this year.


WBA/IBF Super Bantamweight title fight, Carl Frampton v Scott Quigg, Feb 27

This is something of a golden era for Northern Irish sport as you can see by the fact that six of the last seven RTé Sports Personality of the Year awards have gone across the border. Carl Frampton, however, has slipped under the radar somewhat even though he is the first Irish boxer since Steve Collins in 1994 to successfully defend a world title. This should all change at the end of February when he takes on Scott Quigg at the Manchester Arena in a fight which has everything; it's between two reigning world champs and unifies two titles, both are unbeaten, both can punch, with 37 knockouts in their 54 combined victories and there's that old Ireland-England thing to add a little bit of extra spice. Frampton has something to prove after suffering two knockdowns in his last title defence against Mexico's Alexandro Gonzalez, while Quigg's last fight saw him dispose of Kiko Martinez, who went the distance against Frampton, in two rounds. It's almost too close to call but if Frampton can win this one on away soil he deserves to be the early front-runner for SPOTY honours.


Cheltenham Festival, Mar 15-18

AKA the best race meeting in the world. Willie Mullins can pretty much walk on water in the Cotswolds but he still hasn't won the big one, though Djakadam was only a length-and-a-half away in second place last year. That the winner Coneygree was a novice having only his fourth race over fences shows how open the Gold Cup has become in the post-Kauto Star/Denman era. In addition to Djakadam, Vautour and Don Poli, which both won at last year's Festival, give Mullins a strong hand with the big challengers likely to be Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack, last year's top-rated National Hunt horse, and the English hope Cue Card which edged out Vautour in the King George VI Chase. The Champion Hurdle is a lot less open with last year's winner Faugheen looking like a shoo-in for Mullins. Race of the week may be the Champion Chase tussle between last year's runaway Arkle Trophy winner Un De Sceaux and Sprinter Sacre which seems to be returning to the 2013 form which made him look like the best two-mile chaser ever. Will Ireland saddle more winners than England? Will Mullins go into double figures? Roll on March.


The Masters, Apr 7-10

The tussle for the world number one spot between Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day added an extra layer of intrigue to a thrilling 2015 in golf. Right now Spieth, who confirmed his arrival as a challenger for the top spot with a convincing win at Augusta last year, is hanging on at the top by a thread but he may have been supplanted by the time the Masters tees off. Spieth, McIlroy and Day are the three to watch but the field will be bristling with challengers, 2012 and 2014 champion Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson, three times in the top seven at Majors last year, among them. Worth keeping an eye out for are Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka, two hungry young Americans who may be on the verge of a Spieth-style breakthrough. In 2015 the Masters set the tone for the rest of the season. It could do the same this year.


Champions League final, May 28

Which should on current indications see Barcelona bid to become the first team to retain the trophy since the AC Milan team of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard did so in 1990, back when the competition was called the European Cup and played on a knockout basis. Since the transformation of the tournament into the Champions League and the introduction of the group stages, the feat has been beyond a number of unquestionably great teams. Barca with Neymar, Suarez and Messi undoubtedly belong in that category but they are up against not just history but 2014 champions Real Madrid and 2013 winners Bayern Munich, while Manchester City, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain all have the potential to repeat Juventus' surprise run to last year's decider. The obvious final, which right now seems to be between Barcelona and Bayern, never seems to transpire in this competition.


Epsom Derby, Jun 4

AKA The Greatest Race in the world. I almost never like to see an Irish competitor turned over by an English one but there was something cheering about Golden Horn's victory for John Gosden which ended the drearily predictable monopoly of the race enjoyed by Aidan O'Brien in recent years. There's a long way to go, this time last year Golden Horn had only run once, but Gosden seems to have live contenders in Foundation, although the colt was defeated last time out after a bumpy ride in the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, and Wajeez which won by seven lengths on his debut at Nottingham. Michael Stoute's Midterm had a very impressive victory in his debut at Newbury in October and might be a good bet to emulate his sire Galileo which won the big one back in 2001, while the Aga Khan-owned and French-trained Zarak is another one to watch. Most fancied of the Irish right now is Jim Bolger's Moonlight Magic but you'd imagine O'Brien has something up his sleeve, perhaps in the shape of Air Force Blue, the outstanding two-year-old of 2015 and an apparent cert for the 2,000 Guineas.


European Football Championships, July 1-10

Yes, I am aware that the championships begin in June and that this is when Ireland's group games will take place. However, three of the four quarter-finals, the semis and the final take place in July so let's adopt a positive approach. It won't have been much to look forward to if we don't make it out of the group stages, will it? So let's presume Ireland will still be playing when the sixth month of the year turns into the seventh. Even if they're not, there should be a terrific finale in France with world champions Germany bidding to shake off unconvincing form in the qualifiers, reigning champions Spain keen to show that their demise at Brazil 2014 was a fluke, France bidding to capitalise on home advantage like they did in the 1998 World Cup and the promising Belgians bidding to make a breakthrough. Every big tournament tends to produce a 'you must be kidding me' team. Two years ago it was Costa Rica, coming within a penalty shoot-out of making the semi-finals. Let's hope this time it's Ireland, either of them.


The Olympics, Aug 1-10

Or in the words of the English writer Tim Parks, "That intolerable mix of noble sentiments and growth hormones." He has a point and it will certainly be difficult to look at the athletics finals with the usual enthusiasm. All the same Rio 2016 will be one of the highlights of the year for Irish sports and once more our hopes will be pinned on the boxers. Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan travel as world champions, Paddy Barnes as a two-time Olympic medallist and Joe Ward as a world runner-up. All have the potential to not just medal but win gold. Annalise Murphy is another genuine medal contender, since finishing fourth in London in the Laser Radial sailing event she's become a European champion. And Wexford's Bertram Allen, undoubtedly the most exciting prospect in showjumping and seventh, aged just 19, at last year's World Championships, should have a go at emulating Cian O'Connor. There will also be the golf which doesn't really feel like an Olympic sport but probably will if Rory McIlroy steers Ireland to victory. There'll be an odd talented foreigner in action too.


All-Ireland hurling final, Sep 4;

All-Ireland football final, Sep 18

I know this might seem like heresy, it does to me, but I've put down these two dates as much from a sense of duty as one of anticipation. Because the fact is that the 2015 finals weren't very exciting for anyone who didn't come from Dublin or Kilkenny. And if it hadn't been for the two Dublin-Mayo games and the Galway-Tipperary semi-final, the latter stages of the championships might as well not have happened at all. The wonderful hurling championship of 2013 has turned out to be the sporting equivalent of the Arab Spring with Kilkenny soon restoring their iron grip on the levers of power. And it's hard to see where a serious challenge to Dublin is going to come from next year either. The championships need something special, from Clare or Galway in the hurling, Mayo or Tyrone in the football, to stop them seeming like a colossal waste of time. Whether Mayo or Galway's managerial coups represent a determination to go the extra mile or an assertion of their right to self-pity is a question which can only be answered by results. I hope it's the former because the championship desperately needs them to step up.


Ryder Cup, Oct 1-2

It begins at the Hazeltine Golf Club in Minnesota on September 30 but it's the following two days which will tell the tale. US antics at Brookline may have given us an unslakable desire to see check-trousered American butt getting kicked but the fact is that European dominance is taking the edge off the competition. We've won eight of the last ten and three of our victories have been by embarrassingly large margins. It can't go on like this. Thankfully, there are signs of an American revival. Last year they won three out of the four Majors, the first time this had happened since 2006 and they're clustering ominously near the head of the world golf rankings with ten players in the top 20 to Europe's five. So chances are that Europe will have to produce one of the great Ryder Cup performances if they are to post successive away wins for the first time ever. Hopefully Darren Clarke's men will work the oracle and the Americans' only consolation will be the election of President Trump the following month.


Ireland v New Zealand, Nov 19;

Ireland v Australia, Nov 26

February, with Six Nations ties against Wales, France and England, is pretty exciting but the Rugby World Cup has, fairly or not, taken the shine off our recent victories in that competition and proved that the southern hemisphere is where the real action is. There can be no better test for Ireland than playing the top two teams in the world one after the other. It was, after all, the match against the All Blacks in 2013 which kick-started the Joe Schmidt era when morale was at the same kind of low ebb where it currently languishes. However the Six Nations pans out, these are the matches that really matter for Irish rugby in 2016. Even the greatest cynic can't say 'So what?' to a victory over the All Blacks.


Where did the year go? It's tempting to suggest that the highlights of this month might include such new events as the Lanesboro Open Air Waterpolo Tournament, the Graiguenamanagh White Water Rafting Challenge or the Round Bandon Yacht Race. And there may well be, despite the best fixture intentions in the world, a pre-Christmas cracker like last year's Leinster club football final between Ballyboden and Portlaoise. But the week just gone by has shown that for post-Yuletide entertainment there's no beating the World Darts Championship, the final of which gets under way this evening at the Alexandra Palace. Wednesday night's ousting of hot title favourite by Michael van Gerwen by his fellow Dutchman, the veteran Raymond van Barneveld was pretty spectacular but Thursday, which saw multi-coloured mohican-wearing Peter Wright win an epic clash with Dave Chisnall, and Jelle Klaasen take a nerve-wracker against Greatest Of All-Time Phil Taylor and prove that these days the Dutch are better at darts than football, was even better. Chances are it'll be just as good at the end of 2016. In the words of Willie Nelson, "Just when you think it's all over, it's only begun."

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