Friday 27 April 2018

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 (left), 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.

Irish Independent

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