Ireland fail to finish on high note
Ireland's hopes of adding victory in the Samsung Nations Cup final to the record-breaking run of 10 wins during the 1999/2000 series ended in tatters at the Piazza di Siena in Rome on Saturday.
But it wasn't a last-minute decline - the winning streak slipped away in the very first round to allow the Germans through to the top while the Irish were left languishing down in fourth.
Cameron Hanley, winner of both the Kerrygold Grand Prix and the King George V Gold Cup, filled the pathfinder's role for the Irish, but a loose dog broke out of the crowd midway through the round and set off in hot pursuit of Ballaseyr Twilight, snapping at the horse's heels right to the very last fence.
"I didn't know whether to pull up or go on", Hanley said afterwards. He continued on, trying to ignore the yapping terrier, and managed to keep both his own and Twilight's concentration harnessed until the final oxer, but the front rail of that rolled off for a four-fault tally that knocked the stuffing out of the Irish challenge.
Chef d'equipe Tommy Wade, Peter Charles and Hanley all went straight up to the judges' box to lodge an appeal, but the president of the ground jury, Cesare Croce, refused to hear the case while the competition was in progress. With a four-fault handicap from the outset, the Irish resolve weakened and errors from the other three riders left Ireland seventh of the eight teams at the break.
Dermott Lennon and Kevin Babington lowered only one pole apiece, but Babington also added four on the clock and Lennon was also half a second over the time. They were expensive additions as, under new international rules brought in at the beginning of the month, each second over the time incurs a full penalty instead of the quarter fault added under the old rules.
Tommy Wade had already decided that if Kevin Babington had gone clear and the team was still in contention, he would threaten to withdraw the team unless his appeal was heard.
Things improved considerably in the second round, with clears from both Lennon and Babington. Neal Fearon had a stop and a knock with Peter Pan for the discard score of 18, but Cameron Hanley faulted just once to leave Ireland in fourth place on a finishing tally of 21, prompting Wade to relaunch his attack on the ground jury in a further bid to get Hanley's first round score corrected to zero.
With the Italians already announced in third place behind Germany and America, it was indeed unlikely that the Irish case would be given a fair hearing. Wade reluctantly withdrew the appeal, to leave Ireland a disappointing fourth in the finals.
And there was no joy for the Irish in yesterday's Rome Grand Prix either, with all four riders faulting once in the first round to miss the cut for the jump-off.
Just seven made it through to the timed round, which was won from the front by Belgium's Dirk Demeersman and the aptly-named 11-year-old First Samuel.
Nations Cup final - 1, Germany (Christian Ahlmann, Markus Beerbaum, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Ludger Beerbaum), 14 faults; 2, America, 16; 3, Italy, 20; 4, Ireland (Cameron Hanley, Neal Fearon, Dermott Lennon and Kevin Babington), 21; 5, Belgium, 21; 6, Holland, 24; 7, Britain, 27; 8, France, 52.
Grand Prix - 1, Belgium's First Samuel (Dirk Demeersman), 0 faults, 50.63 seconds; 2, Belgium's Heros (Sven Laevers), 0, 51.79; 3, France's Baladine du Mesnil (Olivier Guillon), 0, 53.09; 4, Italy's Gsarset (Christian Pitzianti), 0, 59.21; 5, France's Heliios (Hubert Bourdy), 4, 58.99; 6, Italy's Easy Jumper (Filippo Rizzi), 4, 64.96. Best Irish placings - 10, Carling King (Kevin Babington); 12, Liscalgot (Dermott Lennon).