Sportstar Awards 2018

Team of the Year

20th December 2017; Brian Fenton collecting the Irish Independent Team of the Year 2017 award on behalf of the Dublin footballers Photos
20th December 2017; Brian Fenton collecting the Irish Independent Team of the Year 2017 award on behalf of the Dublin footballers

Dublin footballers

It's six years since Jim Gavin took charge of a Dublin football team still buoyant from the release that a first All-Ireland title in 16 years had given them just 14 months earlier.

What all seemed such a novelty then has since become one of the most routine images in Irish sport.

On Gavin's watch Stephen Cluxton, as captain, has lifted 16 cups from a possible 18 on the steps of the Hogan Stand. Five All-Ireland titles, five leagues and six Leinster titles have been amassed in the most ruthless period of dominance either code has ever seen. Only the 2014 All-Ireland title and the 2017 league have slipped from their grasp in that time.

It's an unprecedented return with four successive All-Ireland titles at the core of it all, making them only the fourth football team in history to achieve such a feat, following on from Wexford (1915-1918), Kerry (1929-1932) and Kerry again (1978-1981).

This year they enjoyed their most comfortable passage with 13 wins from 14 competitive games giving them the treble for the fourth successive time.

The 'greatest team ever' tag has already been bestowed on them by many given their record of consistency and brilliance.

They can win games in a variety of different ways and inevitably rise to any challenge put up to them.

Remarkably their average age is coming down, suggesting they are nowhere near finished yet.

Truly, a team for all seasons.

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Dundalk

After a disappointing 2017 where Cork took over as top dogs, Stephen Kenny's team came roaring back in style this year to claim a domestic double while breaking a number of records along the way.

The Lilywhites claimed a fourth league title in the space of five years, and it was all over a month before the season ended.

They ultimately finished ten points clear of second placed Cork City, with a defeat in Waterford at the start of May a turning point. Kenny's side lost skipper Stephen O'Donnell to a serious leg break, but regrouped and went on to win 16 out of their next 17 league matches.

In the process, they also set a new record for goals scored in a league season (85) - breaking their own record from their last double winning year in 2015 - and the switch to a 36-game league campaign also allowed the Louth club to set a new all-time points target (87).

The icing on the cake was their FAI Cup final success over Cork at the Aviva Stadium which asserted their superiority.

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Ireland Grand-Slam rugby team

For just the third time in the long history of the Championship, Ireland's went the distance to claim the Grand Slam last spring.

Perhaps more importantly, they did it in real style; opening with a last-gasp Johnny Sexton drop-goal to beat France in Paris and finishing with the most complete performance of the Joe Schmidt era to beat England in Twickenham.

Sexton’s magic moment set the tone and, having got themselves out of jail, Ireland were determined to make the most of a golden opportunity.

With relative newcomers like James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Dan Leavy, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter to the fore and despite a number of key injuries in midfield, they accounted for Scotland, Italy and Wales to set up a decider against Eddie Jones’ holders on St Patrick’s Day.

With history weighing on their shoulders, the team roared out of the blocks and scored three first-half tries from Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander and Jacob Stockdale to secure a famous win on a bitterly cold London day.

Captain Rory Best lifted the trophy, following 1948 skipper Dr Karl Mullen and 2009 captain Brian O’Driscoll into the Irish rugby history books as he did so.

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Ireland women’s hockey team

The Irish women’s hockey team became one of the unlikeliest stories of the summer as they burst into the public eye with their run to World Cup silver.

The Green Army only qualified for the event by virtue of its expansion from 12 to 16 countries and their pre-tournament was inauspicious but once they hit London, they could not put a foot wrong.

Wins over higher-ranked, full-time outfits from the USA and India saw them into the quarter-finals with a game to spare.

Back-to-back shoot-out success earned a place in the final for the second lowest ranked side in the competition and while the all-conquering Dutch were too strong on the day, Graham Shaw’s side had left an indelible mark on the competition.

In so doing, they became the first Irish female team of any code to reach the final of an event of this magnitude, all the while playing with beaming smiles and a relaxed nature in the face of the biggest crowds and biggest stage of their careers.

All the while, a mini hockey-mania took over back home with cocktails named in their honour and politicians falling over themselves to get in on the act ahead of a thronged homecoming in Dame Street, capping a surreal, ground-breaking journey for the sport.

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Ireland women’s relay athletics team

Ireland: a nation of sprinters. For many years it was an oxymoronic concept, given our athletics history had for so long been paved with gold due to the feats of stick-thin distance runners.

But all that has changed, and the final piece of evidence was delivered in mid-July in Tampere, Finland.

The silver medal won by the Irish U20 women’s 4x100m squad was the first by an Irish team at a global outdoor championship. The first medal – ever.

In finishing runners-up to Germany in 43.90, this quartet of Irish girls out-performed superpower sprint nations like Britain, USA, Jamaica and France.

What’s more, their reaction afterwards as they leapt and hugged and screamed, united by joy in each other’s arms, singed in the memory a splendid snapshot of the future of Irish sport, and indeed Irish society.

Of the five athletes to play a part that weekend – Molly Scott, Gina Akpe-Moses, Rhasidat Adeleke, Ciara Neville and Patience Jumbo-Gula – three had Nigerian parents, but all five were raised here.

Together, they not only re-defined the boundaries of ability in Irish athletics, but helped to strip away another layer of the xenophobia that unfortunately lingers in our ever-changing society. A golden future? Here’s hoping.

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Leinster rugby team

An unprecedented double saw Leinster crowned Champions Cup and PRO14 champions in what was a stunning season.

Comfortably the best team from start to finish both in Europe and domestically, Leinster rounded off an unforgettable year by beating the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in May.

Having provided Ireland with the bulk of the Grand Slam winning squad, the winning mentality from the Spring fed into the title run-ins as Leinster obliterated everyone who came before them.

Leo Cullen's side managed to go through their entire Champions Cup campaign by winning every one of their nine games, whilst playing some stunning rugby along the way.

Leinster came through an extremely tricky pool unscathed before they beat a formidable Saracens outfit en route to the decider.

The fourth star on their crest was hard-earned in the final too as they overcame a stubborn Racing 92 side in difficult, wet conditions in Bilbao.

The season then culminated in the PRO14 final a couple of weeks later, which saw them cut loose and prove they truly are a team for all conditions, as they lifted the trophy for a record fifth time.

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Limerick hurlers

Few could have predicted the final destination of the 2018 Liam MacCarthy Cup at the season's start as Limerick's hurlers came from obscurity to end their 45-year All-Ireland famine in dramatic fashion.

John Kiely's young guns showed early intent with Munster League success before an eight-year wait for League promotion from Division 1B was ended with a stunning comeback against Galway.

The season snowballed from there and determined to write their own history, the Treaty came of age following their epic All-Ireland quarter-final defeat of Kilkenny.

They looked dead and buried against Cork in the last four but their substitutes fired 2-6 with Shane Dowling outstanding when introduced to produce a rousing extra-time victory.

Dealing with All-Ireland final hype was taken in their stride and Limerick's poise under pressure saw them dominate reigning champions Galway with a textbook team display.

A breath of fresh air from start to finish, their energy, enthusiasm and skill were a sight to behold but Liam MacCarthy wouldn't be theirs without all the twists and turns of a blockbuster movie with a late Galway surge falling just short.

When captain Declan Hannon eventually climbed the Hogan Stand steps amid emotional scenes, it was the perfect finish to one of greatest hurling summers in history and capped a perfect year for the Treaty.

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