By Will Downing
Ireland lie seventh after the middle day of the European Athletics Team Championships in the northern Finnish city of Vaasa, with Brian Gregan scoring the only Irish victory of day two, alongside eleven top-six finishes.
The Irish team are well adrift though of the three promotion places for the 2019 Super League, but are under no risk of relegation to the third flight.
Gregan was immense in winning the men’s 400 metres, his victory never in any conceivable doubt.
Having won yesterday’s heat in 46.24 seconds, the Dubliner romped to glory today in 45.83, well clear of the rest – benefitting from the new format introduced to this year’s Team Championships whereby the sprint events have qualifiers run off on the Friday to shorten the weekend sessions.
Gregan had hit the front clearly before the final bend, and was unchallenged in the closing straight to earn maximum points for Ireland, ahead of Turkey’s Batuhan Altintas in second place on 46.37, with Dylan Borlée of the famous Belgian clan third.
The Clonliffe AC athlete’s season’s best of 45.75 – set in Geneva a fortnight ago – is still quarter-of-a-second outside the IAAF World Championships qualifying standard, but he still looks in excellent form.
Amy Foster set the wheels in motion for a solid day of Irish performances by coming second behind talented Swiss sprinter Mujinga Kumbundji in the women’s 100m early in the afternoon gloom.
Foster, from City of Lisburn AC, came home in 11.70 seconds, with European bronze-medallist Kambundji impressively winning in 11.45. Lorene Dorcas Bazolo was third for Portugal in 11.74.
And the northern star was to continue her good work late in the day, helping Ireland to a scintillating second place in the women’s 4x100m relay, earning eleven points out of a possible twelve.
Foster running the opening leg in the sprint relay at the Karl’s Stadium; alongside her and Niamh Whelan were two impressive teenage sprinters, 18-year-old Sharlene Mawdsley and Ciara Neville, who - at the age of 17 - has already this year broken the Irish indoor 60m record, while going second on the all-time 100m list outdoors.
Ireland were seeded to compete in the B race, with their performance going towards the overall result.
Their time of 44.80 – within a second of the Irish record set at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, which Foster was also involved in - saw them win their heat ahead of Belgium in second (45.15) and Estonia in third (45.67), with only women’s sprint relay specialists Switzerland able to beat that time in A race, recording a thumping 43.77.
A youthful men’s squad finished ninth in the men’s equivalent, with Carlow’s Marcus Lawler – winner of his 200m heat yesterday – running the anchor leg.
Shona Heaslip sliced seven seconds off her lifetime best to finish a creditable fourth in the women’s 3000m, constantly staying up with the leaders and relentlessly refusing to be dropped by the lead pack of five.
The 22-year-old An Riocht athlete, coached by former Irish international Niamh O’Sullivan, romped to a new PB of 9:15.32, having set her previous mark of 9:22.99 at last month’s Leevale AC meeting in Cork.
Linn Nilsson won for Sweden in 9:08.97, ahead of Switzerland’s Delia Scabbs in second with a lifetime best 9:09.33 and Turkey’s Özlem Kaya third on 9:12.09.
Heaslip had worked hard to stay up at the sharp end for most of the race in touch with the eventual top-three, and her collecting of nine points for the Irish team was laudable.
Sinead Denny performed well in the women’s 400m to finish fifth in 53.76 seconds behind race winner Léa Sprunger of Switzerland, and was briefly promoted to fourth following the disqualification of second-placed Bianca Razor. However, the Romanian athlete successfully appealed.
Olympic fourth-placer Thomas Barr in the 400m hurdles and Paul Robinson in the 1500m also notched up fifth-place finishes.
Barr, despite winning his heat emphatically yesterday, found himself bested by some of the world’s top hurdlers; the Waterford athlete coming home in 49.73, this time lacking his customary closing-straight kick.
The sensation of the summer, Norway’s Karsten Warholm, won in a new Championship record 48.46 seconds to add to recent Diamond League victories at Oslo’s Bislett Games and in Stockholm.
Today the Norwegian was ahead of Olympic bronze-medallist Yasmani Copello of Turkey in second, with Swiss Kariem Hussein third and Estonia’s Rasmus Rägi in fourth place.
US legend Carl Lewis has been a critic of Warholm’s enthusiastic introductions to the crowd, but the 21-year-old is delivering in droves.
Robinson was outgunned in the final lap of the 1500m, but did well to avoid a couple of dramatic clashes in the closing stages.
Peter Callahan won for Belgium in 3:59.09, with Robinson’s 4:00.62 only good enough for fifth.
Claire Mooney was well in contention for a high finish throughout the women’s 800m, but faded heavily in the final 50 metres as she rapidly fell from fourth to eighth in the closing strides. However, disqualifications after the fact for Turkey’s Meryem Akdag and Romanian Florina Pierdevara saw the Naas AC athlete promoted to sixth.
A regular visitor to Irish shores, Lovisa Lindh of Sweden, won in 2:02.36, compared to Mooney’s 2:07.05.
Kerry O’Flaherty put in a solid performance to finish seventh in the 3000m steeplechase (10:11.88) as Fabienne Schlumpf earned maximum points for Switzerland.
No Irish track athlete would finish lower than ninth – Mark Christie in the 5000m, Christine McMahon in the 400m hurdles and Eanna Madden in the men’s 100m all registering that position.
Overall, it was a glummer day for Ireland’s field athletes, with only Adam McMullen registering a top five finish, coming fourth in the men’s long jump.
Having finished in the top four after the three regular rounds, the Crusaders AC athlete earned himself one final attempt, but despite his best mark of the day with 7.64m to close out, he could not break into the top three.
European champion Michel Tornéus of Sweden won with his final leap of 7.85.
There were solid finishes of sixth for Dempsey McGuigan in the men’s hammer (65.72m) and Saragh Buggy in the women’s triple jump (12.98m), an equal season’s best.
But Ireland’s lack of strength across the field events continues to be a factor at the European Team Championships. In Tallinn three years ago, Ireland were the best-performing team on the track, winning more points than any other nation. Overall though, they finished seventh due to some low scoring in the field.
The same pattern has emerged several hundred miles due north.
Ryan Carthy-Walsh was tenth in the men’s triple jump, with eleventh-place finishes for Cara Kennedy in the women’s hammer, Sean Breathnach in the men’s shot putt and Grace Casey in the women’s javelin,
Sarah McKeever was twelfth in the women’s pole vault.
Ireland’s position of seventh in Vasaa is quite secure, lying 33 points behind the promotion places and 32 points clear of relegation. Even Portugal in sixth are a whopping 27.5 points ahead of the Irish team.
Tomorrow’s final day sees double European medallist Mark English, Marcus Lawler, John Travers, Phil Healy and Sarah Lavin among those in action.
Ciara Mageean is passing up this competition to concentrate on August’s World Championships in London, but will compete in the Cork City Sports on July 18, which is being televised live by TG4.
Positions after day 2 – 1st Switzerland 175, 2nd Turkey 172, 3rd Sweden 162, 4th Finland 161, 5th Norway 158, 6th Portugal 156.5, 7th Ireland 129, 8th Belgium 122, 9th Romania 117, 10th Estonia 97.5, 11th Bulgaria 92.5, 12th Denmark 80.5.