Sportstar Awards 2018

Vincent Hogan: 'New heroes don't suffer with weight of history'

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Golden girl: Ireland’s Sanita Puspure celebrates. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile Photos
Golden girl: Ireland’s Sanita Puspure celebrates. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

When chasing down history, maybe the first thing to do is disregard it. Or, maybe more accurately, to de-mythologise the people who set themselves apart. To stop seeing them as an alien species.

Face it, the little miracles Jonathan Sexton worked during those dying seconds in Paris last February wouldn't have been possible with a deferential mind.

The differences we saw in Limerick hurlers this year, working their way so purposefully out of crises against Kilkenny and Cork and, ultimately, seeing off great champions in Galway - do you honestly think those days would have been possible with minds full of '73?

Or do you imagine the women's hockey team gave a damn about the past in East London last August? Or a teenage Rhys McClenaghan heading to Glasgow and the pommel horse that same month?

If we have discovered anything about the new face of Irish sport this year, it is that it's defiant, irreverent, ambitious and gloriously un-cowed.

It is a face of different creeds and colours, of a lineage and mindset so broad and diverse, it all but rewrites our sporting DNA.

Think of the O'Donovan brothers and Sanita Puspure in Bulgaria; Thomas Barr in Berlin.

Think of the junior Irish athletes running so boldly in Finland.

Think of Kellie Harrington in New Delhi; of Katie Taylor just about everywhere she goes.

Think of the new rugby demographic. Of rural farmers' sons like Tadhg Furlong and Sean O'Brien standing shoulder to shoulder with those ultra-confident graduates of city schools like James Ryan and Dan Leavy.

Think of our golfers; our peerless horse racing community.

Think of the life Billy Walsh has made for himself in Colorado; of the sheer moxy and courage of a 36-year-old Cora Staunton, back down in Sydney for a second season as the first international player drafted to a women's AFL franchise; think of Waterford's Craig Breen flying the flag in that pressure-cooker environment of rallying's World Championship.

Think of just how much we presume upon these days with our boxers, our jockeys.

Irish sport in 2018 truly represented the best of us, all of us.

Sexton was at the epicentre of the great rugby days, recognised as only our second World Player of the Year and the embodiment of strong, unflinching authority, no matter the press of high-stakes circumstance.

At Twickenham on St Patrick's Day, I sat next to his besotted godfather, Billy, as Ireland went in search of the country's third Grand Slam.

Historically, a visit to RFU headquarters for any pressing rugby business would have brought the probability of jolting failure. But under Joe Schmidt's baton, Ireland boasts - arguably - the most self-sufficient team in world rugby today.

Billy, scarred like so many of us by a small multiple of joyless visits to South West London, was like a man being prodded endlessly by a branding iron. Nerves in a spin-dryer, he just couldn't sit still.

Yet with half an hour still to play, those of us around him could actually counsel calm, realising this battle to be already won; understanding that England, for all the white ferocity and blustering 'swing low' orchestration, could not solve the puzzles Joe Schmidt had put before them. Think about that.

Half an hour to go at Twickenham and a Grand Slam in the bag. Unimaginable in all our yesterdays.

In many ways, the new, nerveless face of Irish sport could be identified right across the canvas of an extraordinary year.

For Ryan and Leavy in rugby, maybe just think Brian Fenton in Gaelic football. Jim Gavin has built a Dublin team that can be pushed right to the precipice without ever - seemingly - even considering the option of panic.

Remarkably, they've often looked vulnerable in All-Ireland finals especially, yet have now won five of the last six and four in a row with victory margins of one-point (Mayo), three points (Kerry), one point (Mayo), one point (Mayo) and six points (Tyrone) respectively.

Fenton's been making Gavin's team-sheet for four seasons now, during which time he's won four All-Irelands, four Leinsters, three leagues, three All-Stars and a Footballer of the Year award. He is 25 and has yet to lose a championship game.

Better still, he seems impeccably grounded, gentlemanly and wise.

And Limerick? They came to the most extraordinary of hurling seasons with few enough believing they'd climb the highest mountain of all.

The championship took us to a new universe this summer. The round-robin structure that some of us prophesised would sanitise and, ultimately, sedate the provincial championships proved a revelation.

And the old game throbbed with thrilling democracy.

Put it this way. The All-Ireland final was between Galway (who over 70 minutes had drawn with Clare) against Limerick (who over 70 minutes had drawn with Cork, who drew with Tipperary, who drew with Waterford). It was, you see, that kind of summer.

And if that monster, injury-time Joe Canning free carried the terrifying whine of a descending artillery shell as it dipped towards their 'square', there was something unspeakably beautiful too about the emotion decanted as Tom Condon came galloping out from the Canal-end goal, 45 years of heartache released by the first glimpse of that sliotar in his hand.

From the old glories of Sonia, Eamonn Coghlan, Vincent O'Brien, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Christy Senior and Junior, Barry McGuigan, Packie Bonner, Paul McGrath, Roy Keane and their like, we plunder new ones now through Sexton and Katie, through Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, through Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, McDowell, Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne, through Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell.

We do so through new surnames like Puspure, Akpe Moses (Gina) and Jumbo-Gula (Patience) and old ones like O'Brien (Aidan and Joseph), Quaid (Nickie), Hegarty (Gearoid), McCaffrey (Jack) and McCarthy (James).

We are different for sure, but only in the possibilities we now see. History has no bind on us.