A year like no other as Irish sports stars continue to hit new heights

THE struggle is in attempting to put scale on this year, perspective even.

great meteor shower of sporting achievement leaves us grasping, not simply for appropriate language, but for basic, hierarchical context. Who stood tallest? What resonated loudest? From beginning to end, Ireland’s stars soared to new places, higher altitudes. Obstinate ceilings of history came tumbling down.

Our women, particularly, set new benchmarks. An already peerless Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to ride a Gold Cup winner. Under Vera Pauw, our soccer team qualified for a first World Cup. Our boxers stockpiled medals (three gold, two silver and two bronze) to finish leading nation at the Women’s European Championships in Montenegro having already plundered two golds at the World Championships in Istanbul .

Katie Taylor topped an all-female Madison Square Garden bill to edge her ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate against Amanda Serrano.

Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on the LPGA Tour, while Ciara Mageean struck silver at a never-to-be-forgotten European Track and Field Championships for the Irish in Munich, having already won silver at the Commonwealth Games. At the para-cycling World Championships in Canada, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal won tandem gold.

And the men?

Josh van der Flier (right) was declared World Rugby’s Player of the Year after a season in which Ireland won a
first Test series in New Zealand whilst also lowering the colors of those other southern hemisphere behemoths, South Africa and Australia, in the same year to end 2022 as No 1-ranked team on the planet.

Shane Lowry won his first tournament since the 2019 Open with a closing 65 to secure the BMW PGA crown at Wentworth. Seamus Power took his second PGA Tour win with success in the Bermuda Championship.

Pádraig Harrington claimed no fewer than four titles (and four second places) in his first year on the Senior PGA Tour while Darren Clarke was Senior Open champion at Gleneagles (one shot ahead of Harrington).

Rhys McClenaghan became Ireland’s first gymnastics world champion; John ‘Shark’ Hanlon saddled his €850 bargain, Hewick, to a sensational win in the American Grand National, jump racing’s biggest prize in the US; Mark English took 800 meters of bronze at those Europeans in Munich; David Clifford and Shane Walsh gave us an All-Ireland football final shoot-out for the ages; Gearoid Hegarty blitzed Kilkenny for 1-5 to collect his second consecutive man-of-the-match gong from an All-Ireland hurling final.

Paul O’Donovan laid further claim to being Ireland’s greatest modern athlete with yet another rowing gold alongside Fintan McCarthy at the European Championships while Sam Bennett took back-to-back stage wins in the Vuelta a Espana.

Eric Donovan, one of the most admirable figures in Irish sport, finally fulfilled his dream of becoming European Union super-featherweight champion with victory over Khalil El Hadri in Belfast before announcing his retirement from the ring.

All wonderful moments in time then, but is it plausible to even begin this conversation without acknowledging that Rory McIlroy’s body of work in 2022 pretty much slams a door on any instinct to argue about who should sit top of the tree?

His Major famine may be about to stretch into a ninth year now, but four tournament wins, a record third FedEx Cup triumph, a return to world No 1 status on the back of season’s winnings that stretched beyond $44 million (€41.7m) and all this while operating as unofficial Lord Mayor of the PGA Tour in its bitter war with LIV golf.

How on earth can we argue that we have even a credible contest on our hands here? McIlroy, after all, had top-10 finishes in all four Majors and recovered from an opening triple-bogey to haul in then world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler in the Tour Championship. He still trailed Scheffler by six shots going into the final round at East Lake, yet closed with a 66 to the Masters champion’s 73. On a truly global stage, he remains an authentic superstar.

Measuring one sporting achievement against another tends, thus, to be an implicitly subjective exercise.

Kerry’s Clifford may just be one of the most skilful, naturally charismatic figures to emerge in GAA history, but how on earth do you size up local against global?

You don’t. You can’t.

All we can do is acknowledge that we have probably just lived through the most extraordinary year in Irish sport, a year in which the vast breadth of achievement identifies this small country now as one leaving an implausibly large footprint on the world stage.

The Taylor-Serrano fight in New York was ground-breaking on so many levels, not least financial terms that meant both fighters walking away with seven-digit purses. If it is easy to pick holes in some of the more tokenistic efforts at selling gender balance in sport, this was shudderingly authentic.

A spectacle of two outstanding athletes going to the very edge of physical endurance to produce a contest that left the entire boxing world enthralled.

Ticket sales alone, incredibly, brought in close to $1.4m on a night that felt like a line being drawn in the sand.

In other words, an elemental night for boxing, not just women’s boxing. Prior to that fight, Taylor brought Amy Broadhurst over to her Connecticut base for sparring. A southpaw like Serrano, the Dundalk fighter offered perfect preparation for Taylor and would, just weeks later, meet her own glory, winning gold at the World Championships in Istanbul.

In Ireland’s boxing history, only three fighters (Taylor, Michael Conlan and Kellie Harrington) had been crowned world amateur champion, but in one extraordinary half-hour last May, Broadhurst and the previously unheralded Roscommon boxer Lisa O’Rourke added their names to that august list.

In doing so, they also each collected $100,000 of the controversial Gazprom prize-money now on offer in the ever more loosely defined world of amateur boxing.

Five months later, O’Rourke’s older sister, Aoife, would join Broadhurst and Olympic champion Harrington on the top step of the European podium in Montenegro as Irish boxers won an incredible 25 of their 32 bouts to claim an unprecedented seven medals.

Broadhurst, incidentally, was named Boxer of the Tournament.

With wily Georgian coach Zaur Antia thus lifting the top team award, we had further proof that for all the conflict and dysfunction at administrative level in Irish amateur boxing, we have seldom had call on better talent inside the ring.

Much the same can be said for our track and field athletes too.

If Mageean and English rightly took the plaudits for medaling in Munich, the performances of Israel Olatunde and Rhasidat Adeleke spoke of a kind of elemental shift in the range of possibilities for modern Irish sportsmen and women today.

Finishing sixth in the men’s 100 meters final, a 20-year-old Olatunde established himself as the fastest Irishman in history with his time of 10.17 despite having an issue with his spikes as he went to the start.

At just 19, Adeleke’s sparkling season established new Irish records for 60 metres, 200m, 300m and 400m, and her fifth-place finish in the European 400m final was delivered in her 49th race of the season and from the invariably unhelpful lane one.

These stories feel as if they are only just beginning, as can be said for those of Sarah Healy, Sarah Lavin and Efrem Gidey.

And there was maybe a touching symmetry in Donegal’s Amber Barrett being the Irish goalscorer at Hampden Park as Ireland beat Scotland to reach next year’s World Cup finals in Australia and New Zealand just days after that horrific explosion that took 10 lives in Creeslough, home village of her grandparents.

In March, Blackmore’s Gold Cup victory on A Plus Tard was delivered with typically scalpel-clean precision, the Killenaule pilot delivering Henry de Bromhead’s mount to a 15-length victory over 2021 winner Minella Indo.

She’d been crowned Cheltenham’s leading jockey at the previous year’s Festival, but it was one played out in front of surgically quiet and empty stands because of the pandemic.

But that familiar roiling, old thunder was back in the famous valley this year, Blackmore declaring after her win: “You know it’s the closest thing to feeling like a rock star I think you’ll ever feel when you can’t even sing. ”

There were few better spectacles in the sporting year than this year’s Munster hurling final, an epic game between Limerick and Clare brought into extra-time by Tony Kelly’s majestic line cut into Semple Stadium’s town end goal. That same day, Limerick’s Seamus Flanagan scored a barely credible 0-8 from play.

Both All-Ireland club finals were won by sensational late goals, Harry Ruddle’s for Ballygunner against Ballyhale Shamrocks, Jerome Johnston’s for Kilcoo against Kilmacud Crokes.

A testing and inconsistent year for Stephen Kenny’s Ireland team did at least highlight the rude health of our goalkeeping talent with Gavin Bazunu becoming a regular Premier League starter at Southampton and Caoimhín Kelleher the key man in Liverpool’s Carabao Cup final win against Chelsea, the first Irish goalkeeper in 57 years to win a medal in one of English’s football’s three major competitions.

Ireland’s cricketers enjoyed a stirring campaign at the T20 World Cup, including England among their scalps taken.

Meath’s female footballers successfully defended their All-Ireland crown whilst Kilkenny got the better of Cork in the camogie.

It took an extraordinary, curving Seán O’Shea free from 50 yards over the Hill end goal to get Kerry past Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final that comes back now, probably, as Gaelic football’s game of the year.

But pride of place in any hierarchy of teams surely goes to Andy Farrell’s Ireland, with men like Van der Flier, Jonny Sexton, Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony all seemingly at the top of the game. Irish rugby has never felt better primed for a stirring World Cup assault, arriving into 2023 as the world’s No 1-ranked side and now, palpably, comfortable in the game’s most revered company.

Could it be different this time?

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