Top sparring sets Irish team up for crack at EU Championships in Spain

Irish bantamweight Kurt Walker training alongside Olympic silver medallist Sofiane Oumiha during a training camp at Jordanstown last week. Picture by Hugh Russell
Neil Loughran

THE Irish team heading out to the European Union Championships in Spain next week will do so having sharpened their tools against some of the best the continent has to offer during an eight-day camp in Jordanstown that finished at the weekend.

Fighters from Italy, France, Switzerland, Romania and Germany have been in Belfast since last week, training alongside the Ulster High Performance squad and the seven-man Irish team that travels to Valladolid on Thursday, November 8.

Among those sparring some competitive rounds was Sofiane Oumiha - the French lightweight who claimed World gold in 2017 and Olympic silver in Rio two years ago - and Italian heavyweight Clemente Russo, a two-time Olympic silver medallist and World Championship gold medal winner in 2007 and 2013.

The Irish team, which includes Ulster fighters Conor Quinn and Kurt Walker, is being led by John Conlan, and he couldn’t be happier with their preparation.

He said: “I had two aims with this camp. The priority is to give the best preparation for the guys going to the EUs, to try and get world class sparring for that competition, and that’s why we’ve brought in so many countries – different styles, different techniques, different opponents.

“Secondly though, it’s a great opportunity to give our Ulster High Performance boxers the exact same experience without having to be in a competition. They’re never going to be able to replicate some of these spars.

“The only time they usually get that opportunity is when they’re facing these guys in a tournament, but now they can experience that and have a better idea of how to defeat certain styles of opponent.”

Following the withdrawal of light-heavyweight Joe Ward with a hand injury, it is a somewhat inexperienced looking Irish squad that will compete at the EU Championships.

Indeed Canal bantamweight Walker, still only 23, is one of the most senior figures on the team.

For Conlan, though, this competition represents an opportunity for everyone in action to lay down a marker before the road to the Tokyo Olympic Games officially gets under way next year.

And he believes Walker is ready to prove he belongs right up alongside the elite at 56kg, a division Conlan’s son Michael ruled after landing gold at the 2015 World Championships in Doha.

“We’ve got a very young panel, there’s not so much experience.

“You’re looking at basically Kurt Walker and Dean Gardiner as the most experienced boxers on the team and the rest of the lads have had one or two internationals but nothing major.

“But they’ve been performing well in sparring here, so they have a good opportunity to go and test themselves.

“Kurt’s very close to being at that level. He’s working hard, he’s been to World Championships, European Championships, Commonwealth Games... I think Kurt just needs the right tournament to give him that little boost. That’s all he needs.

“He’s a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and he’s been outstanding in this camp with his performances so far. I think he’s going to do well.

“It’s just a break you need sometimes, and that goes for everybody. It’s Kurt’s time to shine now, we’ve a very busy year ahead for all boxers, and there’s a great opportunity to show the country what they can do to get on the team and potentially get on the plane going to Tokyo.”

Another man very much in the frame for 2020 is Conor Quinn.

The Clonard flyweight has been clocking up the air miles this year as his international experience continues to soar, and Conlan is excited by the division, with Rio Olympian Brendan Irvine – currently recovering from a wrist injury – set to return to the fray at the start of next year.

“Conor’s doing really well,” he added.

“He’s still very young, but it’s a great opportunity for him to use what he’s been through this year and put it into action in this tournament.

“He’s a very nice kid, a very hard trainer, and we’re very lucky that we have good talent at that weight that they can bring each other on.

“Next year’s going to be very interesting with Brendan coming back looking to take his spot back, and Conor’s the new kid on the block at the moment. They’re two great talents, so it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out.

“Anything is possible for Conor now.”

Irish squad

52kg: C Quinn (Clonard); 56kg: Kurt Walker (Canal); 64kg: Wayne Kelly (Portlaoise); 69kg: Kieran Molloy (Oughterard); 75kg: Michael Nevin (Portlaoise); 91kg: K Afanasev (Smithfield); 91kg+: D Gardiner (Clonmel). Coaches: J Conlan, E Pluck; Team manager: M Hawkins; Physiotherapist: S Caffrey; Team doctor: J Clover; Sports physiologist: D Martin; R&J: Jim Murrins

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