The securing of a one-year extension to his contract as Ireland’s show jumping team manager was welcomed last week by Rodrigo Pessoa, whose priority in his coming term is to get his charges to Tokyo 2020.
On making the announcement of his extended contract, Horse Sport Ireland stated that an option to renew for a further year was on the table, which would imply that Olympic qualification would, most likely, be the deciding factor.
Pessoa excelled in his first year in charge by ending a 16-year Irish drought of championship medals when winning gold at the 2017 European Championships in Sweden, where Cian O’Connor also nabbed individual bronze.
His first attempt at Olympic qualification came up short at the 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in North Carolina in September where Ireland finished seventh, one notch shy of a Tokyo ticket. It was a major disappointment in an otherwise decent year for the team which finished second in their division of the Nations Cup League and went on to take third place in the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona in October, but it’s that Olympic fallout that will hang over the team ahead of the new season.
The last time Ireland’s show jumpers had a team at the Olympics was at Athens 2004. There are two more chances left to put an end to that particular famine. Both will come in the latter part of next year, at the European Championships in Rotterdam in August and at the Nations Cup Final in October, the venue for which has yet to be confirmed.
Qualifying a show jumping team is tougher than any of the other disciplines. There are more teams in the mix for starters, and the demands on show jumping horses and riders are increasing on a yearly basis.
Pessoa had eight top-level outings last year and in none of them was he able to field the same line-up twice. The goal would have been to have the best four to hand for the WEG, but that didn’t work out, with horse injuries and withdrawals.
What made affairs more difficult for Pessoa during 2018 was the increase in the number of Irish riders competing on the Global Champions Tour and its attendant Global Champions League. The money on offer is hard to resist for owners and with the venues on the glamorous circuit frequently clashing with team fixtures, the national sides are almost always the losers.
It’s a problem he will face again this coming year, though his counterparts in other countries will have the same to contend with.
So what of Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the Olympics at the Europeans next August? Well, Pessoa’s team are the defending champions, though it will be two years on by then. They don’t need to win again, but they must finish as one of the three highest-placed teams who have not already qualified.
Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have already qualified through the WEG so, barring a sudden surge in strength form peripheral nations, that essentially leaves Ireland battling with Italy, France, Great Britain, and Belgium for one of those three places. Ireland finished ahead of all four of them at the WEG, and finished ahead of all four in the Nations Cup League as well, but not in the Nations Cup Final which Belgium won with France in second and Ireland third. Italy finished fourth and Great Britain didn’t make the top eight.
If Ireland don’t qualify at the Europeans, they have a last chance to do so at the Nations Cup Final in the first week of October. Only one Olympic place will be left by then, and that will be open to not just European teams but any team from around the world that makes that final and has not by then booked their Olympic place.
The hope for Pessoa is that by then, Ireland will not need to be in the chasing pack.
This weekend’s five-star action takes place at London Olympia and includes a round of the FEI World Cup series. Richard Howley, Shane Breen, and Denis Lynch provide the Irish interest. After Christmas Day, the series moves to Mechelen in Belgium.