People to watch in 2016: Sports

A selection of young sportspeople to watch in 2016 including a jockey, a golfer, a Dublin footballer, a boxer and a female MMA fighter

 

INPHO_01002365_WEBJack Kennedy
Horse racing

Still only 16, the young Kerry man has been quicker making a name for himself as a jumps jockey than anyone in recent times. A serial pony-racing champion, it wasn’t as if his rise to prominence hadn’t been flagged, but it has still been a surprise to see him this successful this soon.

Had a day of days in Navan at the end of November when winning three graded races on horses trained by Gordon Elliott and owned by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud. Elliott is the only trainer in Ireland who can come close to impinging on Willie Mullins’s dominance and Gigginstown is probably the best ownership around to be attached to. Neither would trust a 16-year-old with this sort of precious cargo unless they saw something special in him. Gigginstown will send an army of horses to Cheltenham in March so it’s likely Kennedy will get his first ride at the festival this year. On a day-to-day level, he will fight Danny Mullins all the way for the conditional jockeys’ championship. If he can avoid any serious injuries, his stock is set to rise throughout 2016.

GETTYIMAGES-495525964_WEBLeona Maguire
Golf

It’s probably asking an awful lot for Leona Maguire to improve on 2015, but her graph has only ever gone in one direction, so it’s not as if we’re taking a huge gamble here. The 21-year-old from Ballyconnell in Cavan is already the world’s number one amateur female golfer and it doesn’t take a huge leap to see her as our best-known sportswoman a few years from now.

There are plenty of potential goals for her to achieve in 2016. Work on the first, to stay at the top of the world amateur rankings, begins again at the end of the month when the US college season kicks back into gear and she leads her team at Duke University in South Carolina through the season.

June will almost certainly see her represent Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup, assuming she hasn’t turned professional by then.

August should see her play for Ireland in the Olympics, with Portrush golfer Stephanie Meadow. And along the way, whether she moves to the paid ranks or not, she is sure to play in a number of professional events – including the British Masters, which she came so close to winning last year.

INPHO_00998150_WEBMichael Conlan
Boxing

This will almost certainly be Mick Conlan’s last year as an amateur and everything he has done in his career points to a determination to make it his best. He is already an Olympic bronze medallist, a European champion and, as of 2015, the only Irish male world champion in our long and storied amateur boxing history. All he has left on his horizon is Olympic gold in Rio.

It won’t be easy. Already expectations for our boxers in Rio are probably too high. Along with Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward, Conlan has been tagged as a little more than just a workaday medal hope. But in a sport as open to judging whims as amateur boxing – especially in a tournament held in South America – it’s only right to sound a note of caution. The departure of long-time head coach Billy Walsh can’t be spun as a positive either.

That said, Conlan has always shown himself to be reasonably impervious to outside factors. Nothing was expected of him in London, yet he medalled anyway. The reigning RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year could be a decent shout for back-to- back honours if all goes well.

INPHO_00984805_WEBAisling Daly
MMA

With the retirement of Cathal Pendred and the recent surprise defeat of Joseph Duffy, there is a gap in the UFC market for another popular Irish mixed martial artist beyond Yer Man McGregor. Step forward Ais “The Bash” Daly, who got far and away the biggest crowd response at the UFC event in the Three Arena last October.

Daly has been climbing through the UFC ranks for a few years now and the planets look to be aligning for her to possibly get a shot at the big time. In a sport crying out for marketable stars, there is some talk that Daly could be matched up with American fighter Paige VanZant in April or May. If it happens, Daly’s profile in America will go through the roof. If she wins, it will soar.

While the chance of Conor McGregor fighting in Croke Park seems a fair way off, there is likely to be at least a UFC night back in the Three Arena in 2016 and Daly would be a shoo-in to fight on that bill. The 28-year-old Dubliner could well make the breakthrough this year.

INPHO_00830073(1)_WEBPaul Mannion
Gaelic football

Not so much one to watch but one to rewatch. In these oh-so-serious times in the GAA, it is rare for an intercounty player just to up sticks and leave a successful team behind, but that’s what Paul Mannion did. As soon as Dublin went out of the 2014 championship to Donegal, Mannion moved to China as part of the business course he was doing in UCD. He followed it up with a summer in Chicago and ended up watching last year’s All-Ireland final on Hill 16.

Although Dublin got on just fine without him, if Mannion comes back to the panel in anything like the form that saw him shortlisted for young footballer of the year in 2013, he will be a huge addition. A year out of his comfort zone in Asia will have done his head no harm at all – he freely admits that by the end of 2014, he badly needed a break from the intercounty grind.

At his best, Mannion can be unmarkable. He is tall for a corner-forward and accurate off both feet, with a nice habit of chipping in with important goals too – as he did against Kerry in that incredible All-Ireland semi-final in 2013. Back to that sort of form, he will be a huge asset to Dublin. 

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