Friday sees the first of Ireland’s competitive show jumping team fixtures this year as manager Rodrigo Pessoa brings a strong squad to La Baule for the French Nations Cup. It will hopefully be the start of a fruitful summer which could yield an Olympic qualifying place by the end of August.
Squad member Cian O’Connor said yesterday he expected a good showing by the Irish as he looked forward to his first Nations Cup with his newest star Irenice Horta. “Personally, I’m looking forward to it because it’s the first real test I’ll have with Irenice,” he told the Irish Examiner.
“We’re absolutely ready for the challenge. All in all everybody will be doing their best. There’s a good vibe around. We should have a chance of coming out on top.”
Pessoa has named a strong line-up for this first fixture, with three of the riders who jumped in last year’s World Championships (O’Connor, Shane Sweetnam and Paul O’Shea) and one (Darragh Kenny) who was part of that squad but whose intended mount Babalou was struck with colic and so missed out.
Thankfully, the Kenny and Babalou partnership is back on song as demonstrated at the weekend when winning the Kentucky Spring Horse Show Grand Prix.
For this contest, Kenny brings Balou du Reventon, Sweetnam is set to partner Indra van de Oude Heihoef, with O’Shea poised with his World Championship mount Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu. Mark McAuley with Vivaldi du Theil complete the Irish picture for this first major clash of the season.
In all, there are four Nations Cup qualifiers to be negotiated. After France this week, Ireland will compete at Sopot in Poland in June, Hickstead in the UK in July and Dublin Horse Show in August.
The target from these fixtures is to gather enough points to qualify for the annual Nations Cup final in Barcelona in October, which, for the first time, carries one Olympic place.
By then, Ireland may have already qualified for Tokyo, because the big opportunity of the year comes at the 2019 European Championships being staged in Rotterdam barely two weeks after Dublin Horse Show.
Three Olympic places are on offer there, so securing one of those will be the primary goal, but just in case that fails, the four Nations Cup league fixtures will hopefully yield enough to qualify for that final stab at a Tokyo slot in Barcelona.
Whether it be through the Nations Cup series or the European Championships, Ireland desperately want one of those Olympic places, having been absent as a show jumping team since Athens 2004. In the intervening three Games - Beijing, London and Rio - Ireland had just one individual place, which resulted in one medal - the bronze won by O’Connor in London on Blue Lloyd.
He maintains the Irish are determined to do their utmost to qualify this time around. “There’s a big appetite to really knuckle down and prepare to go well in Rotterdam in order to qualify.
“For me, it’s at the front of my mind every day I get up. Going to shows week in, week out isn’t really on my agenda. It’s to try and peak for the major occasions.”
It was at La Baule that Pessoa had his first competitive outing as Irish manager two years back. On that occasion, Ireland had a reasonable day, finishing third behind France and Sweden who tied and went into a jump-off which was won won by the hosts.
Last year, it was not so good at the French venue, with Ireland finishing sixth, and Pessoa will be hoping such will not be the case this time around.
Meanwhile this week, Irish riders Michael Duffy, Michael G Duffy and Denis Lynch will be at the Global Champions Tour (GCT) meeting in Madrid. The GCT clashes with all four of Ireland’s Nations Cup qualifiers this year which does not help national managers in their team selection process, but the draw of the lucrative tour is a constant in international show jumping now and team bosses just have to work around it as best they can.
The past week saw Irish dressage welcome another chink of light if it is to feature at Tokyo 2020. Dale Rawlins achieved the qualifying standard for the European Championships when competing with Espoire at Royal Windsor Horse Show.
He became the fourth Irish rider to qualify (after Judy Reynolds, Kate Dwyer and Heike Holstein) meaning Ireland has the potential to field a full team of four at the Europeans, which, in the case of dressage, is the last chance to qualify a team for the Olympics.
There could be further team options for Ireland before then with Anna Merveldt needing one more qualifying score to reach the mark, having notched the first of the requisite two a fortnight ago at Mannheim in Germany on Esporim.
Three of the above, Holstein, Dwyer and Rawlins are in action at the French three-star meeting at Compeigne this week. At home, Balmoral stages it’s two-star international this week with the action starting today. The Grand Prix takes place on Friday.