Boxing

Big guns may be gone, but John Conlan still expecting strong showing at Gold Coast Commonwealths

Ulster High Performance coach John Conlan could call upon Rio Olympians Brendan Irvine and Steven Donnelly for next year's Commonwealth Games, but the likes of Paddy Barnes have since left the amateur game behind. Picture by Hugh Russell

ONLY three fighters remain from the 11-strong team that took Glasgow by storm three years ago, but John Conlan is still confident of a successful Commonwealth Games showing from what will be a new-look outfit next April.

Michaela Walsh is back better than ever and will be hoping to upgrade her silver medal if selected for the Gold Coast, while 2014 bronze medallist Steven Donnelly hopes to sign off his amateur career at a third consecutive Commonwealths.

Alanna Nihell – like Walsh - received a walkover at the recent Ulster Elite Championship finals but, having landed bronze in Glasgow, is also in the shake-up for a spot in Australia.

Beyond those three experienced campaigners, Conlan will take a relatively young team Down Under.

Lost to the pro game since 2014 are his son Michael and Paddy Barnes – both gold medallists last time – while Joe Fitzpatrick (silver), Connor Coyle (bronze), Sean McGlinchey (bronze) and Steven Ward (silver in 2010) have also turned over to the paid ranks.

Ruairi Dalton has since relocated to New York, while Glasgow bronze medallist Sean Duffy lost out to James McGivern in the lightweight final of the Ulster Elites.

Conlan has already had his proposed team ratified by the Ulster Boxing Council and sent to the Commonwealth Games Council for consideration, though no official announcement will be made until January 3.

It remains to be seen how many boxers are selected on Team NI but, given the huge medal return from the last Games, boxing is playing with a strong hand.

The maximum that can be included is 13, while it is extremely unlikely to be less than the 11 sent to Glasgow.

All will be revealed in under a month’s time but, regardless of numbers, Conlan believes there is no shortage of talent in Ulster despite the loss of some big names in recent years.

“We have lost some strong players, guys who would be probably definite gold medals, but now we have a new batch of young guys - a fresh team that is halfway between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020,” said Conlan, who is in New York for Michael’s fifth professional fight at Madison Square Garden this weekend.

“The Commonwealth Games is always where we test these guys because, at the end of the day, we want Olympic champions. So we use this to see the new guys coming through.

“I’m really happy – at the Ulster finals we saw some talent that is very strong in the national team, and some young talent coming through. Women’s boxing is starting to take a foothold and we have some decent talent coming through there too.”

Yet while the likes of Rio Olympians Donnelly and Brendan Irvine - as well as 2015 European Games bronze medallist Sean McComb - are well known in boxing circles, some of the others signalled their considerable talent for the first time at senior level.

The likes of best boxer winner McGivern and Aidan Walsh were already well known to Conlan, having won gold medals on his 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games team, and the Ulster coach wasn’t surprised to see so many strong performances on finals night.

He added: “This is my job, it’s day to day. I know every person who was in that ring personally having worked with them.

“We have the talent, that’s something boxing has always been very lucky with, having that conveyor belt of talent coming through all the time.

“What we want to do now is basically a two year transition - to be able to go down those two years and work with that youth team, keep them involved with camps. That’s the future - that’s what the big countries do.

“Traditionally we were getting our teams in and maybe having a two week camp before the Europeans, but when you’re competing with the likes of GB and Russia, those guys have 14 week training programmes and maybe four teams, so they’ve got a great pool of boxers to work with.”

ULSTER COACH SIZES UP OPPOSITION AT COMMONWEALTHS

IT may be five months away but John Conlan has already been doing his homework on the potential challenges facing his fighters in the Gold Coast – and has tipped India as ones to watch.

India finished joint seventh in the medal table with four silver and one bronze, and have since invested heavily in a bid to improve that performance as, like Ireland, they build towards the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Sweden-based Argentine Santiago Nieva was recently named High Performance director, while experienced Italian Raffaele Bergamasco has been brought in to oversee India’s women’s programme.

Elsewhere, Team GB is expected to be as strong as ever, with hosts Australia, Canada, Scotland and New Zealand always bringing talented boxers to the Commonwealths.

And Conlan admits no stone can be left unturned to ensure his boxers are best-informed when the time comes.

“I’m always scouting,” said the Ulster High Performance head coach.

“I look at every tournament in the world and every tournament I look at, I’m looking at potential opponents, building up a database all the time.

“India are enjoying a resurgence. They’ve put a lot of money into bringing in foreign coaches, and they now will put in a lot of energy and effort into full-time training for their team.

“England and GB are full-time training. They’ve jut come back from a camp in Tenerife and are heading to Colorado to prepare. It’s full-time training – that’s what we’re competing against.”

Conlan brought a five-strong team to Samoa for the Commonwealth Youth Games two years ago, and expects to renew acquaintances with some familiar faces next April.

He added: “I’m looking at the talent from the Commonwealth Youths two years ago that I saw myself, and there are some very good kids coming through from the Caribbean and Africa as well.

“Australia had a world youth champion two years ago in St Petersburg, and their team is backboned by the Samoan youth team. It’s their home tournament so they’ll have a little edge on everybody.

“The competition is very strong.”

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