Irish sporting Highs and Lows of 2019
Ciara Mageean scoring a PB in the World 1500m final
The Portaferry woman already had a European indoor 1500m bronze in the bag by the time she set off for this year’s World Championships in Doha. She battled her way through the heats to become the first Irish woman since Sonia O’Sullivan in 1997 to qualify for a World 1500m final. Cheered on by hearty bunch of ex-pats who wore their Down GAA colours with pride (although, Mageean did find time to chastise the one supporter who dared to bear a Ballycran jersey).
Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands took the field out at an alarming pace which didn’t let up until she’d crossed the line for gold. Mageean managed a 10th placed finish and set a new personal best which will have given her plenty of optimism for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
As well as tearing it up on the track, she also provided some TV gold with her post-race chinwags with David Gillick on RTE.
Shane Lowry winning The Open in Portrush
That the event was being staged in Royal Portrush was a boost in itself, but having an Irish winner, and one as universally popular as Shane Lowry, took it all to a whole new level. Still, considering the fact that the Open can often be four Majors in one day as far as the weather is concerned, it would take a man with Celtic blood in his veins to tame the radically altering elements.
Lowry was just one shot behind leader JB Holmes on day one, but once the Offaly man assumed the lead on the second day, he was never to relinquish it.
His blistering third round of 63 in rain, wind and sun has already become the stuff of Major golf folklore as he streaked ahead of a field struggle on the north coast links and celebrated with similar gusto.
Katie Taylor unifying world lightweight titles
Success at amateur level is never a guarantee of professional glory, but Bray boxer Katie Taylor’s career trajectory has been on pretty much an upward curve from the moment she first laced up her gloves. A trailblazer on the amateur scene, she has taken her punishing punches to every glass ceiling in the sport.
She unified the four world lightweight belts with a majority points decision over Belgian Delfine Persoon in New York. That made Taylor only the seventh boxer, male or female, in the history of the sport to hold all four major world titles at the same time.
But her year wasn’t done yet and she bagged the WBO junior welterweight title with her win over Christian Linardatou in November in Manchester to become a two-weight world champion, following in the footsteps of fellow Irish boxers Steve Collins and Carl Frampton.
Slaughtneil and Clonduff winning All-Ireland camogie titles
Slaughtneil have made a habit of bringing provincial and All-Ireland titles back to south Derry, but that doesn’t make this year’s achievements any less impressive. The Robert Emmet’s club claimed a national hat-trick with their All-Ireland title on the bounce.
As the snow fell in Croke Park, the Derry girls kept their cool and led from start to finish in their All-Ireland Senior Club Championship against St Martin’s of Wexford with 1-6 from Tina Hannon steering them to a 1-9 to 0-7 victory.
While Slaughtneil are serial winners on the national stage, Clonduff were aiming for a maiden All-Ireland title and they grabbed the opportunity with the both hands, seeing off Waterford champions Galltir in their final at Headquarters.
Kilcoo winning their first Ulster title
The Class of 2019 will be talked of in hushed tones around the Kilcoo club in the decades to come, but right now they are being rightly lauded for finally lifting the Seamus McFerran Cup after years donning the bridesmaid’s gown. Losing their Down title to Burren in 2018 prompted a rethink in the Eoghan Rua club and in came Mickey Moran and Conleith Gilligan to bring the club to the next level.
The county championship was regained, the only bump along the road being a quarter-final replay against last year’s conquerors. They got their fill of it on all three of their Ulster Championship ties, with Magherafelt, Derrygonnelly and Naomh Chonaill all testing their resolve to finally break their provincial duck after two previous final defeats.
Standout performances along the way from Conor Laverty, Darragh Branagan and the Johnstone brothers, Ryan and Jerome steadied the ship.
Donegal’s Super 8 angst
A tactical coup by Declan Bonner saw Donegal score a well-deserved victory over Tyrone in the Ulster SFC semi-final. It proved to be the pivotal performance in their successful Anglo-Celt as the final against Cavan proved something of a non-event, if a high-scoring one at that.
However, it was in the All-Ireland quarter-final group stages where their campaign for Sam faltered again. They would take little comfort from the epic draw they played out with Kerry at Headquarters as it led to them travelling to Castlebar in the final round of games without their place in the last four nailed down. For the second year running, they needed to win to seal a semi-final spot, but came up against a revitalised Mayo team who had honed their game through the back roads of the Qualifiers.
The Westerners got off to a flyer, taking a 1-7 to 0-4 lead at half-time. The shell-shocked visitors got back into it early in the second half thanks to a Michael Murphy penalty. But Mayo always kept themselves at arm’s length and a couple of rousing late points from veteran forward Andy Moran sealed their progress at Donegal’s expense.
Ireland beaten by Japan in World Cup
Ireland’s win over New Zealand in autumn 2018 and their subsequent rise to top spot in the world rankings sealed the unwanted tag of being the best teams in the world between World Cups.
However, in what was to be a swansong tournament for head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best, Ireland appeared to have path mapped out for them to at least a semi-final. All they had to do was win a pool in which the highest ranked team apart from them was Scotland to book their place in the so-called easier side of the draw.
No-one, though, could have forseen defeat the hands of hosts Japan. The Cherry Blossoms shook the rugby world with their 19-12 win in Shizuoka. The result condemned Ireland to a quarter-final with New Zealand, and the Kiwis exacted revenge in ruthless fashion with a 46-14 win. Still, the apparent easier route would have seen them face eventual world champions South Africa in the last eight, so they were always going to be up against. Much work to do for new head coach Andy Farrell.
Rory McIlroy’s opening round at The Open
The stage was set for the hometown hero (well, if you believe international broadcasters who think that the 60-odd miles between Portrush and Holywood constitutes a short skip), but from the first tee, Rory McIlroy’s Open Championship challenge was hitting the skids. The 79 he hit represented a low point, but the only way was up from their and he shot an astonishing 65 on day two in valiant, but ultimately vain attempt to make the cut.
However, he was back on cloud nine a mere six weeks later after bagging the FedEx Championship and the year ended on an almighty high for McIlroy with victory in the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai in November.
The FAI shambles
Irish football may have deigned the failure to qualify automatically for Euro 2020 as a lot point, but the fact that they still retain a chance to play in a major tournament in front of their home fans through the play-offs.
However, the domestic game would be rocked later in the year when the extent of the mis-management at the upper echelons were laid bare. An Oireachtas committee was told that the FAI had debts totaling €55m and have requested a government bailout.
Footballing governing bodies don’t look too favourably on government intervention, but without some form of assistance, there remains the threat that the association itself could be dissolved – spelling disaster for the club and international game in the Republic.
All this comes as Dublin prepares to play host to matches in Euro 2020, the first time a major soccer tournament has taken part on these shores.