Boxing

Seconds Out: Rio disappointment has been forgotten about insists Bernard Dunne

High Performance director Bernard Dunne insists there is no extra pressure on Irish boxers heading towards 2020, despite the disappointment of the last Olympic Games in Rio. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil Loughran

IRELAND returned empty-handed from the last Olympic Games in Rio, but High Performance director Bernard Dunne insists that disappointment hasn’t piled on any extra pressure as Tokyo 2020 looms large on the horizon.

Much was expected of the team that travelled to Brazil in 2016 but, after Michael O’Reilly’s failed drug test on the eve of the tournament, things went from bad to worse.

Michael Conlan’s controversial exit to Vladimir Nikitin, and the fall-out from it, sent shockwaves through amateur boxing at world level, while Rio remained a source of hurt long after the Irish team had landed back on home soil.

But Dunne says that, three years on, any hangover from that setback is long since gone.

“I don’t know whether I feel there was a cloud… that cloud gets paid a lot more heed from outside than it does inside.

“We had a fantastic team at Rio, things didn’t go their way. Olympic medals, World medals, European medals, they don’t just get handed out. They’re extremely hard to win – for anybody.

“Sometimes there’s an expectation upon boxing that ‘oh, they’re just going to go away and win medals’. There’s not always been an appreciation for how hard they actually have to compete to get those medals, the likes of Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Katie Taylor, even now the likes of Kurt Walker, Kellie Harrington, Aoife O’Rourke, Michaela Walsh, Amy Broadhurst…

“We probably don’t celebrate it enough really. We’ve become accustomed, and the public has become accustomed, to boxing just going away and winning medals. Maybe that lessens the impact of how hard it is to win these medals.

“It’s an incredible achievement by these young athletes, it really is.”

Of the seven-strong team that competed in Rio, only flyweight Brendan Irvine - outside of the suspended O’Reilly - has resisted the lure of the professional ranks, and the St Paul’s man is in the mix for next summer’s Games.

Dunne was appointed in the spring of 2017, and has helped oversee the transition in Irish boxing during the time between, with a new crop of talented young fighters coming through to make a name for themselves in their own right.

And, with Tokyo 2020 just eight months away, the Dubliner says the only pressure comes from the boxers themselves.

“I wouldn’t say I feel a pressure, or the team feels a pressure - the people who have the most expectation are the people within the programme, the athletes.

“They all want to be successful, they all want to perform at the highest level, they all want to go to the Olympic Games.

“In the last 12 months we’ve won a World gold medal, top eight finishes at the worlds, top 16 finishes, eight European medals two of which were gold. We were the third highest medalling team at the European Games… this is a good team. They’re good athletes, they’re driven, they’re hungry, they all want to show they can compete against the best.

“We have great coaches, a great support structure between Rachel Mulligan, HP manager, Zaur Antia, all these people work together to make sure we afford the athletes the best possible opportunity to be the best they can be.

“That’s all the athletes can do themselves. Prepare well, perform as best as you can, and results should take care of themselves. Yes, it’s a young team, but if you’re good enough you’re old enough, and this team is good enough.

“The results for the team will ultimately come in the end.”

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Kurt Walker on his way to defeating England's Peter McGrail at the semi-final of the European Games back in June. Walker would go on to claim gold. Picture by PA

WALKER SERVED 'BEST APPRENTICESHIP YOU CAN GET' UNDER CONLAN: DUNNE

THE meteoric rise of Irish bantamweight king Kurt Walker in the past year should come as no surprise considering the apprenticeship he served, says Bernard Dunne.

After being brought on to the High Performance unit, Walker spent two years in the shadow of Michael Conlan as he pursued his Olympic dream, having returned from London 2012 with bronze.

But the Lisburn man has made a major breakthrough on the international stage during the past year, landing a European Union gold medal towards the end of 2018 and following that up with European Games gold in Belarus in June.

As a result, Walker is now regarded as one of Ireland’s main medal hopes heading towards summer’s Olympics, and Dunne isn’t shocked by the rapid progress made.

“I see the work Kurt puts in day in, day out,” says the former world bantamweight champion and current director of the Irish High Performance unit.

“Kurt got the best apprenticeship you can get; Michael Conlan is one of the best athletes this country has ever produced, and when you’re coming behind someone like that, it’s difficult because you’re following in a big shadow.

“Kellie Harrington was following Katie Taylor – she’s now the world number one. She’s probably been our most consistent athlete over the last two or three years.

“For the young guys coming in now, it’s about getting them to understand that there’s going to be opportunities. None of our athletes feels they’re the finished product, they’re always looking to get better and that’s the great thing I admire about them.

“And that’s the great thing Kurt has; he’s always learning.”

Monkstown welter Aidan Walsh is another who has put himself in the qualification frame, topping off a remarkable comeback story by landing his first Irish elite title last week.

The 23-year-old was unsure what the future held after being edged out by Paddy Donovan in the Irish Elite Championships held last February, but has now forced himself into the top position as selection for the Olympic qualifiers hots up.

“Aidan stayed in the programme, even after being unsuccessful at the nationals, because it was identified that he had qualities that we’re looking for,” said Dunne.

“He went to then recent World Championships as the first pick, so that goes to show you that it does work – Aidan has come through now and won the nationals.

“He fought Pat McCormack at the Worlds, got beat on a split decision in the last 16, and he put up a hell of a performance.

“It’s that continuous piece, always looking to get better, attending training, being coachable, listening to the coaches. That’s who we’re looking for.”

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Eddie Ward (blue) of Moneyglass ABC and Holy Trinity’s Adam O’Rawe go head-to-head during their Boy 3 54 kg Ulster semi-final in Derry at the weekend. O’Rawe went on to win the bout and was crowned Ulster champion on Sunday. Picture Mark Marlow

Townland’s Clare Hanna with her coaches Carmel and Tommy Quinn after a great performance in her Girl 2 45kg Ulster semi-final in Derry at the weekend. Picture by Mark Marlow

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