Captain Darren O’Neill insists he is focused on his last shot at reaching a second Olympics, despite the recent selection controversy that surrounded the Irish team.
Kilkenny heavyweight O’Neill is the first Irish boxer in action today at the final ‘amateur’ qualifier for this summer’s Rio Games, which began in Baku last Thursday.
O’Neill, who captained the Irish boxing team at London 2012, takes on Mustafa El Molla of Sweden in the first of five bouts he must win if he is to secure Olympic qualification as only the gold medallist at his weight of 91kg will progress to Rio.
Clonmel’s Dean Gardiner faces a similar challenge as he must also emerge victorious through four bouts at super-heavyweight, while Wexford light-welterweight Dean Walsh and Portlaoise middleweight Michael O’Reilly both need top-five finishes.
The latter pair will target winning three bouts each if they are to make sure of their Olympic spots, although two victories could be enough depending on other results.
While O’Neill and Gardiner look up against it, they have been aware of their task for some time as both boxers were assured of their places at the tournament throughout a recent training camp in Azerbaijan.
In contrast, Walsh and O’Reilly were only selected to box at the tournament during that warm-up camp as head coach Zaur Antia opted to assess their form and attitude after the pair were sent home from a European qualifier last April due to disciplinary issues.
Walsh and O’Reilly both impressed Antia and his fellow coaches enough to be picked ahead of former European champion Ray Moylette and Newry middleweight Connor Wallace respectively, although O’Neill admits that the uncertainty surrounding the pair’s selection made for an unusual pre-tournament training camp in Baku.
“It was kind of strange in the camp,” said O’Neill.
“But I’m around long enough that I don’t let that type of stuff bother me. Maybe it did annoy the coaches a little bit so hopefully they aren’t too stressed and they’re focused on us as well.
"I have my own focus going in there and I just needed to get through it and get what I needed out of camp. I feel that I’m in relatively decent shape now so hopefully things go well now when I get into the ring,” added O’Neill.
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