By Daragh O Conchuir
It isn’t all that long ago that a pall of gloom surrounded Irish boxing. Spoiled by the successes of recent years, expectation had risen to insane levels and when a team of eight or more wasn’t secured for the Olympics, it was seen in some quarters as a failure.
Katie Taylor’s fourth world championship success on Saturday morning has coincided with a buoyant feel that surrounds our pugilists’ hopes once again.
Taylor has to handle phenomenal pressure, her gold medal already assumed even before she had qualified during the week.
Her final at the weekend will have shown the uninitiated that the Bray wonder does face challenges but there is no arguing with the fact that she represents this country’s best opportunity of Amhrán na bhFiann being played in London next August.
In all, Ireland has a six-strong boxing team ready to vie for the most valuable metal in the sporting world and that might yet be seven, as lobbying continues on behalf of Joe Ward for a coveted wild card entry.
The facts are, that with Ireland now dubbed the Cuba of Western Europe, each of our representatives has a chance of medalling.
It is certainly the aim of former Kilkenny U21 hurler, Darren O’Neill. He almost quit boxing when losing out to the late Darren Sutherland in the battle to wear the green singlet four years ago. Of course Sutherland went on to win a bronze medal and O’Neill hopes it’s his turn now.
A lot of hard work has gone into being ready to peak in two months’ time.
“I’m enjoying it” says O’Neill, before checking himself. “Well, I’m saying I’m enjoying it now, but when I was in (the) Ukraine (training camp) I wanted nothing except to get home. It’s a hard life but as (head coach) Billy (Walsh) always says, if it was easy everybody would be doing it.”
So wary are the world’s top nations now that they don’t want to put their best fighters up against the cream of Ireland’s crop in sparring. It shows how far we have come, thanks to the high performance system established by the IABA under Gary Keegan’s guidance and carried on by Walsh and Dom O’Rourke.
“We’re trying to finalise where the final training camp is, but we’re not 100% on that because countries don’t want to be taking us in now we're a threat to them.
“We’re hoping to get Russia or Ukraine but after coming out of Ukraine, we got to get in the ring once with their No 1s, and even at that it wasn’t at our own weights.
“So they are finding us a threat now. Although it’s a compliment for us, it’s also a hindrance. I had to spar with a welterweight over there as opposed to a middleweight – having said that he was a world champion so I wasn’t taking it lightly either!
O’Neill was always competitive, whether it was in hurling or boxing. One senses that he would fit right into the mould of player current Kilkenny senior hurling boss, Brian Cody, wants. He could quite easily be playing in the black-and-amber jersey now but boxing got his juices flowing that bit more.
“I played inter-county up until U21 myself, and I loved the hurling and I miss it, but I just felt more personal satisfaction out of boxing and more individual rewards; the individual suffering as well, physically, and the emotional one of a loss.
“I just hate losing and that’s what keeps me going. My mother often slagged me at home – if I was playing a game of ball with the brother who’d be a good few years younger than me, I’d have to beat him in the end.
“I’d let him win all the way to the last minutes, but I just hate losing and it’s probably a good trait to have in this game. I think you have to have a little bit of that desire to win in you somewhere.”
He is pleased that so many of the team-mates he has been housed and sparring with will be joining him across the water but ultimately, it would make little difference to him if he was going on his own.
“It would be lovely to have a full team going because the atmosphere would be great. But at the end of the day, it is an individual sport and there’s positives and negatives to both arguments there. If you have a full team there maybe you’re getting less one-on-one coaching; with a smaller number you might get more one-on-one.
“With a full team you might have a better atmosphere, with a smaller team not so much. But at the end of the day it’s going to be about the individuals, and you can be sure that (coaches) Billy and Zaur (Antia) and Gerry Hussey, our sports psychologist, will have us all prepped properly.
“There will be no stone left unturned. Either way, we’re looking forward to the home straight.”