Irish fighters need luck of the draw to get to London
By Ciarán Gallagher
AS ALWAYS, Sunday afternoon’s postponed draw in Trabzon will play a major part in the hopes of Irish fighters at an overseas tournament. The route provided can be the difference between a clear run to sealing qualification to London 2012, though this final European qualifier, or being denied a place at the Games.
WhileIreland already have three Olympians bound for London in Michael Conlan, Darren O’Neill and John Joe Nevin, the qualifier’s host country Turkey have yet to qualify one boxer. The advantage of staging such an event was evident in Kazakhstan this past week where three of the host’s four boxers qualified for the Games through the Asian qualifying event.
Avoiding the Turks is a hope for our contingent, but the margin of error remains slim for some and non-existent for others. Both Tommy McCarthy (91kg, heavyweight) and Ross Hickey (64kg, light-welter) must claim gold to reach London, while Adam Nolan (69kg, welter) and Con Sheehan (91+kg, super-heavy) have to reach their respective finals.
Presumed to be in the most favourable positions are lightweight David Oliver Joyce (60kg) and light-fly Paddy Barnes (49kg) whose divisions offer four qualification places.
While the Turks will offer a privileged challenge (being hosts), worryingly Russia – one of the world’s leaders in amateur boxing – will compete with Ireland in three weight categories.
The presence of junior World Championships silver medallist Artyom Zaytsev at 64kg and Magomed Omarov (91+kg) are evidence of just how tough the Russians will be, meaning Hickey and Sheehan are up against it. Zaystev has only lost once to a non-Russian in the past year-and-a-half, while Omarov’s selection speaks volumes after being picked ahead of Sergey Kuzmin who had claimed gold at the Chemistry Nations Cup in Halle last month.
Another gold medal winner in Germany was our own Joe Ward, already hailed by many blinkered Irish optimists as a certainty to succeed in London.
Light-heavy Ward (81kg) is odds-on to qualify over the next week given his form and the lack of elite competition in Trabzon – but there are other factors to be wary of. He showed rare signs of mortality at last year’s World Championships and the level of expectation heaped upon his young shoulders regarding an Olympic medal is ludicrous despite his achievements (he is already 4-7 with one bookmaker to win a medal!).
However, the fact that Ward is the only fighter ranked in the world’s top 10 to be present in the 81kg category in Turkey, combined with his recent destruction of domestic rival Ken Egan, justifies the expectation that he should qualify through one of three places on offer.
In the weight above, McCarthy avoids some traditional big guns who are already qualified but to reach the final is still a big ask, while Nolan has been touted as the darkhorse by Irish head coach Billy Walsh but only has a slim chance of qualifying, with tough German and eastern-European competition lying in wait.
At lightweight, Joyce is in with a major shout. Russian Albert Selimov will be the hot favourite in his weight class – his disqualification at the Worlds was his first loss since 2010 – while Liverpool’s Sam Maxwell is a surprise pick for England.
Finally, Paddy Barnes will once again head into international competition with much expectation and little competitive preparation. Following his hard-earned win at the National Seniors in February, the Beijing medallist put his struggle for form down to a lack of fights.
It will be hoped that the Belfast man was put through his paces in sparring during Team Ireland’s recent high-class training camp in Ukraine but worries remain about Barnes’ confidence levels. He should be a dead-cert to qualify but an easy opener would be welcome.
With the draw having been put back from Friday – and Saturday’s boxing postponed by 24 hours – Team Ireland may yet benefit from some surprise weather.
The delay in action has been caused by fog, meaning 18 teams were delayed in their arrival, which could upset some rival team’s preparations. Every little thing helps when the line between success and failure is so thin.
*An extended version of Ciarán Gallagher’s Mail Box column appears every Friday in the Irish Daily Mail. Twitter: @gallagherbox