As an overcast morning gave way to warm sunshine, Ireland had another outstanding day at the World Rowing Championships here in Plovdiv.
Emily Hegarty and Aifric Keogh made history as they qualified an Ireland women's pair for an A Final at this level – and they won their semi-final, effectively consigning Britain to the B Final. The men's double of Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne also won their repechage, lifting their new crew into the semi-finals.
Gary and Paul O’Donovan left us with our hearts in our mouths. In a tight finish, they took third in their semi-final of the lightweight double sculls, with only three A Final places on offer. Italy led early on, but Ireland came hunting in the second half. It looked as if the O’Donovans would close out the deal and win, but Italy held on, while Belgium – in the outside lane nearest the stand – finished well to take second. The O’Donovans held off Poland to remain in the hunt for medals.
The extra effort of having to compete in a disadvantaged lane in Wednesday’s quarter-final did not help the O’Donovans and they looked particularly tired. Placing third means they will have to contend with being in an outside lane in Saturday’s final.
Paul agrees that having an outside lane did not do them any harm in Rio 2016, where they took silver. “You can row hard from any lane,” he says, with a smile.
Keogh and Hegarty were surprisingly calm after their win. Britain, Spain and Italy seemed to be running the race in the middle stages and on their way to the A Final, but Keogh had spotted something. “We changed the race plan slightly. We went up a gear a bit earlier than planned, around 750 (metres to go). We felt people were slowing down a bit and we thought we’d take advantage.”
They kept up the charge until the line, leading in Italy and Spain. The United States and Britain took fourth and fifth and go to the B Final.
Hegarty said it was an advantage to have an experienced oarswoman in the boat. “Definitely. It’s really reassuring that she’s there and she’s done it before. When we’re going down the course it’s ‘listen to Aifric and do what she tells you!’” Hegarty laughs. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Doyle and Byrne won their race in a very different way – they swept into a lead and never looked in real danger of losing it. This was impressive, given that this is their first big regatta together and Doyle is rowing for just under five years. Hard training is a mark of the regime of high performance director Antonio Maurogiovanni. "The programme of training is brutal," Doyle said. "But it has polished us as a product."
The women's lightweight double of Aoife Casey and Denise Walsh won their C/D semi-final and will compete in the C Final.
Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan had a frustrating morning, dropping into the C/D semi-final with fifth in their quarter final.
The evening was better for the Ireland pair – memorable even. They chased down Australia, in a race where the top three went to the C Final. On the line, their second place seemed to be snatched by Italy, and the Netherlands also pushed through. The photo finish was so tight it was well into the next race before the decision was announced joint second with Italy.
The Irish go to the C Final, where a top-two finish puts them in the top 14. In the run-up to Tokyo 14 boats will qualify for the Olympic Games. The former lightweight champions want to continue.
They may have competition. These are heady times from Irish rowing.
World Rowing Championships, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Day Five (Irish interest)
Men Pair - Quarter-Final Four (Three to A/B Semi-Finals; rest to C/D Semi-Finals): 1 Canada 6:26.04, 2 New Zealand 6:30.36, 3 Czech Republic 6:35.01; 5 Ireland (M O'Donovan, S O'Driscoll) 6:44.28.
C/D Semi-Final One (Three to C Final; rest to D Final): 1 Australia 6:36.82, 2= Ireland 6:38.74, 2= Italy 6:38.74; 4 The Netherlands 6:38.78.
Double Sculls - Repechage Four (First Two to A/B Semi-Final): Ireland (P Doyle, R Byrne) 6:16.96, 2 Bulgaria 6:20.15.
Lightweight Double - Semi-Final Two (Three to A Final; rest to B Final): 1 Italy 6:21.94, 2 Belgium 6:22.83, 3 Ireland (G O'Donovan, P O'Donovan) 6:23.78.
Women Pair - Semi-Final (Three to A Final; rest to B Final): 1 Ireland (A Keogh, E Hegarty) 7:14.67, 2 Italy 7:14.99, 3 Spain 7:15.30.
Lightweight Double Sculls - C/D Semi-Final (First Two to C Final; rest to D Final): 1 Ireland (A Casey, D Walsh) 7:20.51, 2 Spain 7:24.08.