Sportstar Awards 2018

Year of the 'small fry' - Colm Keys reflects on the huge impact made by minority sports in 2018

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Glorious girls in green: Ireland’s players celebrate after beating Spain on the way to claiming the silver medal at the Women’s Hockey World Cup Photos
Glorious girls in green: Ireland’s players celebrate after beating Spain on the way to claiming the silver medal at the Women’s Hockey World Cup

The Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in east London, the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, the Plovdiv Regatta Centre in Bulgaria and Finland's Tampere Stadium are not exactly iconic venues of world sport.

But in an Irish context they have become meaningful signposts to a brighter future, helping to stitch together the fabric of a remarkable story of expansion and adventure in 2018, taking athletes into uncharted territory and the sporting public away from its regular mainstream diet.

Whoever thought that an Irish team's first World Cup final appearance would be in women's hockey? Or that a 19-year-old would not only represent Ireland for the first time in a European gymnastics final, but complete swing, scissors and circle movements with such polished execution to win it outright?

One World Championship rowing gold medal in an Olympic event would have constituted a resounding success, but two on the same weekend? Was that not being a touch avaricious?

Podium

Irish sprint success on the track had only twice stretched to the podium at a major championship in 86 years but that gap was closed in 2018.

And, if what's coming behind is anything to gauge by, it could well be a common occurrence after the success of the women's sprint relay team at the World U-20 Championships.

We've become accustomed to success between the ropes at Olympic and World boxing championships, we've known track success over longer distances, Irish horses run faster and jump better than most, golf Majors have been within reach over the last decade, while the exalted status of the No 2 ranked rugby-playing nation in the world has been coming for a while.

However, this was a year when Irish sport spread itself wider and tapped into some niche markets with resounding success, as a whole new landscape was cultivated.

None more so than the hockey team in early August, who proved that anything really is possible with a stunning silver medal success.

These hockey tournaments are not known for upsets, with the divide between professional and amateur teams stark.

So when Ireland, competing at that level for the first time in 16 years, emerged from their group and then beat India to qualify for a semi-final against Spain, just about everyone sat up and took notice.

On a dramatic Saturday afternoon, Ireland's success in a sudden-death penalty shoot-out, courtesy of Ayeisha McFerran's initial block and Gillian Pinder's nerveless winner, delivered Ireland to the final day of a tournament few even knew they were participants in a week earlier.

They lost 6-0 to Netherlands in the final, but that scarcely took from the journey that they'll hope to build on.

Rhys McClenaghan is a name we'll hear much more about, with Tokyo 2020 now firmly in his sights after his pommel horse success at the inaugural European Championships.

It is a measure of Irish rowing's growing status that last September in Bulgaria, Paul and Gary O'Donovan's win in the men's lightweight double sculls final, followed within 24 hours by Sanita Puspure in the women's single sculls, gave Ireland as many gold medals at the World Championships as Australia, Canada and Netherlands.

Derval O'Rourke apart, Irish success at major outdoor track championship events has been threadbare, but Thomas Barr's second-fastest 400m hurdle time earned European bronze to build on his Olympic fourth two years earlier.

Two medals at the World U-20 Championships in Finland in July can only give optimism that more will follow in Barr's slipstream.

Patience Jumbo-Gula, Ciara Neville, Molly Scott and Gina Akpe-Moses claimed silver in the women's 4x100m - 15-year-old Rhasidat Adeleke was also part of the team before injury ruled her out - while Sommer Lecky's 1.9m high jump added a second silver.

Together with Sara Healy's 1500-3000-metre race double at the European U-18 Championships in Hungary, young Irish athletes left quite the footprint across the continent in 2018.

For all the new horizons, however, it was the modern constant of the international rugby team that will feature prominently in any future recall of a year when they soared higher than ever before.

That just a third (Five/Six Nations) Grand Slam felt like an inevitability once Johnny Sexton had engineered a great escape from Paris on the opening weekend reflected the growing expectation around them.

That 41-phase passage of play with time elapsed ended with Sexton, later shortlisted for world rugby 'player of the year,' landing that mammoth drop-kick.

The 'Slam' was completed in Twickenham on St Patrick's Day and by the summer that same depth of resolve saw them come from an opening test defeat to beat the hosts 2-1 on Australian soil for the first time since 1979.

But even that felt like small change when New Zealand left Dublin bowed, bullied and defeated in a brutally brilliant test match.

At club level, Leinster's great promise manifested with a fourth Champions Cup success, with Sexton again pivotal.

In an epic year for hurling, full of thrilling matches and outstanding performances, Limerick withstood a thunderous Galway rally to lift a 45-year siege since their last Liam MacCarthy Cup success.

In Gaelic football, such is the hold that Dublin have over the rest, that scarcely an eyelid was batted as they did what only three teams had ever done before by winning a fourth successive All-Ireland title.

As ever, racing produced its own stream of highlights.

Davy Russell claimed top jockey at Cheltenham, with Gordon Elliott leading trainer, and the pair then followed it up with an Aintree Grand National success with Tiger Roll.

Elliott was again eclipsed by a fast-finishing Willie Mullins for the trainers' title, a 9,802/1 Punchestown six-timer helping the Closutton master get up on the line.

Irish cyclists scored stage wins in the Tour de France (Dan Martin) and the Giro d'Italia (Sam Bennett).

For many, however, the year largely belonged to those groundbreakers who opened new fronts for Irish sport. Picking our Sportstar of the Year will be a tough task.