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Johnny Sexton, Ireland hockey, Rhys McClenaghan, Graham Shaw and Ray Houghton the winners on gala night at RTE Sports Awards

Ireland's Johnny Sexton scores the winning drop goal during the NatWest 6 Nations match at the Stade de France, Paris in February. Sexton was named RTE Sportsperson of the Year on Saturday night
Andy Watters

JOHNNY Sexton said he wished 2018 would never end as the curtain came down on a remarkable year for Irish sport at the RTE Sport Awards on Saturday night.

Ireland out-half Sexton, already rugby's World Player of the Year, was named RTE Sportsperson of the Year for the part he played in the Grand Slam triumph that included his vital drop goal against France, Leinster's European Champions Cup and Guinness Pro14 double and Ireland's historic victory over the All Blacks in November.

Sexton, who'd scrubbed the mud off after playing his part in Leinster's win over Bath in horrendous conditions at the Aviva Stadium just a couple of hours earlier, modestly dedicated his award to his team-mates and coaches.

“I would like to thank all the team-mates and coaches, the Irish coaches are top class – world class – and they make my job a little bit easier,” he said.

“(Thanks to) all my team-mates as well. I feel a little bit bad accepting an award as a number 10, I'm supposed to be the guy who sits in the background and helps control the team. I don't think I should be getting individual awards because it's the other guys who make me look good.”

Sexton's award was the individual highlight of a night on which sports men and women from Coleraine to Cork, from the Ireland showjumping team to Longford's Gaelic Football giantkillers Mullinalaghta, gathered at the Donnybrook studios.

They are the dream-makers whose performances will inspire a generation of Irish children to sporting success in the future, predicted RTE Head of Sport Declan McBennett.

“In the technological age in which we now live, there is not a single device on this planet that can measure the impact that your achievement has on the next generation of sports stars in this country,” said the county Armagh-based Monaghan native.

“Every time you score a point or a try or a basket, every time you throw a punch, cross the line, pull an oar or whatever it is you do in your particular discipline, there is a child somewhere on this island who goes outside to their back garden or their local park or their local swimming pool or wherever it is that they find sanctuary and they pretend that they are you.

“They live that dream, they are for that moment executing the skills that you have just executed. When they go to bed that night they continue to live that dream and replay it over and over in their minds until the point comes when they replace your name with their name.

“They live and they are inspired by you. That is the power of sport, that is the inspiration that you hand on to the next generation.”

At the tender age of 19, Bangor teenager Rhys McClenaghan is already an inspiration. The former Regent House pupil didn't have too many Irish role models to aspire to but in 2018 he won Commonwealth and European gold medals – beating the Olympic champion in both tournaments – and only injury ruled him out of another gold medal challenge at the World Championships.

“I had belief from a very young age,” said McClenaghan, who was named Young Sports Person of the Year.

“I think it's time a lot of other gymnasts had belief and I'm excited for that.”

McClenaghan exploded onto the international stage in 2018 and that's exactly what the Ireland ladies' hockey team did at last summer's World Cup.

Ireland were ranked 15th out of the 16 finalists but reached the final and the team was rewarded by being voted Team of the Year for 2018, seeing off stiff competition from the Limerick hurling team, Dundalk FC and others.

“We've been on this journey for a while now and we've experienced some really tough low moments and that's what brings us together,” said team captain Katie Mullan.

“When you experience that and you go on and fight and get on to the training pitch on the dark dulls days that's what really stands to you and creates the team environment that we had in London.”

Meanwhile, coach Graham Shaw, who topped a list that included Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt and Jim Gavin, architect of Dublin's four in-a-row, was named Manager of the Year.

“To be even listed among the other nominations is a huge honour,” he said.

“I have a special group of people and we trained really hard and worked really hard for each other. This was our first world cup and to go into it a major competition and perform at the level they performed and show the level of composure and togetherness was something to be very, very proud of.”

He added: “We love a challenge and the challenge now is the Olympic Games. We'll approach that head-on and we'll look forward to it.”

THE crowds usually part for Dublin footballers but this time Kieran Kilkenny and Brian Fenton gave way, hoping for a ‘hello' as Ray Houghton made his way into the RTE studios on Saturday night.

With current Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy on one side of him and future manager Stephen Kenny on the other, Houghton nodded and smiled - "Alright lads" - and the two Dubs went off chuffed to bits. They'd just been spoken to by a bona fide Irish sporting legend.

Houghton only scored six times in 75 games for the Republic of Ireland but two of those goals have gone down in Irish sporting folklore.

The man put the ball in the England net (to seal a 1-0 win at Euro '88) and then the Italian net (at USA 1994) was inducted into the RTE Hall of Fame at the annual sports awards.

Born and reared in Glasgow, Houghton's father is from Donegal, a fact brought to then Republic manager Jack Charlton's attention by John Aldridge after Charlton had gone to watch future Liverpool striker ‘Aldo' in action for Oxford.

Houghton (who also moved to Liverpool) and Aldridge both in started in Charlton's first game in charge and went on to become lynchpins in the side that reached the European Championships in 1988 and the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.

“I scored six goals in 75 games and anyone who's half decent at maths will tell you that's one in 12 and for a midfielder that's not very good at all,” said Houghton on Saturday night.

“I would always think of myself as a goal-maker, not a goalscorer. I came in in 1986 for Jack's first game and qualifying for the European Championships in 1988 really put the team on the map.

“At that team it was an absolute pleasure to be part of the international set-up. The achievements of '88 and then getting to the World Cup in 1990 and getting to the last eight was absolutely phenomenal.”

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