The year ahead: What does 2022 hold for Irish women in sport?

From hockey to horseracing, boxing to golf, female athletes had a stellar 2021

The Ireland team celebrate with the EuroHockey trophy in October after winning the tournament and qualifying for the World Cup. Photograph: ©INPHO/Giuseppe Fama

The Ireland team celebrate with the EuroHockey trophy in October after winning the tournament and qualifying for the World Cup. Photograph: ©INPHO/Giuseppe Fama

 

So what’s next? Sport is merciless in its propulsion. Regardless of what was achieved in 2021, the next 12 months of the diary are sitting there, waiting impatiently to be filled. Nothing carries over. There’s no credit to be extended into 2022. You did what you did. Now go and do the next thing.

A comedown would be entirely understandable, of course. There is a very good reason that 2021 is the first year that 80 per cent of the shortlist for RTÉ’s Sportsperson of the Year was made up of female athletes. A year like this just isn’t the norm. It’s frankly greedy of us to imagine 2022 will come close.

And yet, that’s not going to stop anyone trying. If anything, the exact opposite is true. Champion jockey Rachael Blackmore isn’t going to be easing off coming up the Cheltenham hill in March for any reason, least of all because she is sated after last year. She and all the others will keep on raising standards because that’s what everyone else is doing too. You never stand in the same river twice.

There is a huge year on the horizon for two of Ireland’s premier international teams. The public momentum behind Vera Pauw’s Republic of Ireland soccer side has been one of the true highlights of 2021. Having picked themselves up from the careless failure to qualify for the Euros, they have made a terrific start to their World Cup qualifying group.

Beating Finland in Helsinki was a flag planted in the ground. It was the first time an Irish women’s team had won a competitive away fixture against a team higher up in the world rankings. Even the stutter against Slovakia was brushed aside by the 11-0 win over Georgia. In Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan, they have two genuinely world class players. They have never had a better chance of making it to a World Cup.

The year will wash out as follows. Away to Sweden in April, which is basically a free hit. Nothing is expected from a game against one of the superpowers of the women’s game so anything gained is a bonus. Qualification will come down to the other games; away to Georgia in June, home to Finland on September 1st and away to Slovakia five days later. They need to finish second to go into the play-offs. Base camp for their ambitions now.

Staying with World Cups, the Ireland hockey team have followed up their heroics in England in 2018 by qualifying for the 2022 tournament. It’s the first time they’ve ever been in back-to-back World Cups and it will take place in Spain and the Netherlands in early July. They were a bolt from the blue last time around and ended as runners-up.

With the surprise factor kaput, they have an uphill task ahead of them if they are to come anywhere close to the heady days of 2018. The Dutch are hot favourites to make it three World Cups in a row, with Argentina and Australia their main threats. Ireland have lost a few warriors along the way too, with Hannah Matthews, Shirley McCay and Nicci Daly all having hung up their sticks. The draw will be in April and we’ll have a better notion then of what’s in store.

On an individual level, a fascinating year lies ahead for some of our biggest stars. The spring should bring the fight that Katie Taylor’s career has been heading towards ever since she turned pro. Presuming nobody gets hurt and everyone can agree on the terms, her showdown with Amanda Serrano will be the biggest fight in women’s boxing history. Two gold-plated legends of the sport, facing off for the biggest purse ever fought for by two women. Still making history, after all these years.

For Leona Maguire, the aim for the year ahead is devastatingly simple. It’s time to win a tournament. She showed in the Solheim Cup that she has everything you need to prosper on the LPGA Tour; she was 19th on the money list in 2021, with earnings of $885,141 (about €785,000). She finished the year ranked 43rd in the world. She just hasn’t won yet. Only a matter of time, you’d imagine.

Kellie Harrington was supposed to have the World Championships in Istanbul in the run-up to Christmas but the fourth wave of Covid put paid to that. The worlds have been postponed until next May, which ought to give her a better chance of defending her 2018 title. The post-Olympics whirlwind can’t have made knuckling down to training any easier so a nice six-month extension is no harm. If she wants it, she’ll go get it.

Elsewhere, it’s a huge year in athletics. Much like in boxing, Covid has crunched the intended calendar so for the first time, the World and European Championships will be held in the same year. The Europeans in Munich hold out the best hope for Irish success, with Ciara Mageean, Phil Healy and the mixed 4x400m relay team all capable of making this the year.

One to keep a close eye on is double European under-20 sprint champion Rhasidat Adeleke. Still only 19, she has the most potential of any Irish sprinter for decades. She is still in college in Texas and the Euros will come at the end of a long season. But if she makes a splash on a bigger stage, nobody will be shocked.

With the Paris Olympics just 2½ years away, 2022 is going to be a crucial year everywhere you look. With Annalise Murphy retired, sailors Eve McMahon and Aoife Hopkins both have their eye on building on her legacy. Same for Sive Brassil now that Natalya Coyle has left the modern pentathlon stage. Sport never stops.

That’s the brutal beauty of it.

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