Show me the medals, only just don’t tell. Or should that be other way round? It used to be anyway, those innocent days when no Irish athlete dared predict or talk up their medal winning chances for fear their shyness might be mistaken for aloofness, or worse still their confidence misjudged for cockiness.
Not anymore. There have been some exceptions over the years, (yes, we still need to talk about Michelle), and sometimes the medal-winning mentality which transpired wasn't previously evident, only what already sets Team Ireland apart in Tokyo is their medal talk being so bountiful. Some more than others, naturally, the good thing is it could prove positively infectious.
Some of this fresh air of confidence began during the qualifying process – or indeed ahead of it. Back in April, about a month before the final Olympic Regatta in Lucerne, the Irish women's four line-up of Fiona Murtagh, Eimear Lambe, Aifric Keogh and Emily Hegarty, plus the lightweight double of Aoife Casey and Margaret Cremen, had to decide whether or not to send their best boats out to Tokyo well in advance (the containers had to be dispatched three months in advance) or keep them for Lucerne to help ensure the better chance of qualifying for Tokyo.
They chose wisely: both crews qualified in May, in what was essentially their second boat, their first choice now safely arrived and tested in Japan as the Olympic regatta gets under way at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo Bay.
Keogh has also talked about what the medal success of other Irish rowers has done for her confidence, and she’s right. Everyone knows success breeds success, that winning is a habit, and the chances of Irish medal success in Tokyo unquestionably begins with Irish rowers.
Of the record six Irish boats qualified, four have already won several medals at World or European championship level, with all six tasting success at World Cup level. It's easy to forget that Paul and Gary O'Donovan won Ireland's first ever Olympic rowing medal in Rio (helping bring Ireland's outright tally to 31, across just six sports): Paul is partnered by Fintan McCarthy in Tokyo, one of the gold medal favourites in the lightweight double; Sanita Puspure is a double World and European champion in the women's single; Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne qualified in the men's double for Tokyo by winning World Championship silver in 2019.
“The team is going so well at the moment that if one boat wins a medal I see no reason why we all can’t,” says Keogh, the 28-year-old from Na Forbacha in Galway, who began her rowing at school at Coláiste Iognáid, now the most experienced of the women’s four. “We’re all so competitive and performing very closely, percentage wise, at the moment that I think that is everyone’s ambition and dream at the moment.
“There are only going to be 10 boats in my event so that’s actually less than a lot of the events that I’ve raced at this year. So I can’t see any outside pressures coming into it.”
For Doyle, partnered in the men's double with Ronan Byrne, there's also the recent experience of missing out on a medal at the 2021 European Championships in Varese, Italy, before bouncing back to win silver in Lucerne in May: that's partly down to this new breeding of Irish rowing success
“We’re not here because we’re not competitive,” he says. “We all have a drive, every athlete at the Olympics has some kind of competitive drive. If I see Aifric winning a medal one day, I’m not going to rest until I get a medal the next day.
“One boat drives the next which drives the next and so on. On our best day we’d like to come home with a medal. Now it’s just about trying to present our best race on the day.”
New kids on the block
Irish rowing, we know, now has Olympic medal-winning calibre: then there are the new kids on the block. Jack Woolley and Rhys McClenaghan, both just 22, are looking to go where no Irish Olympians have gone before: Woolley is the first Irish Olympic representative in Taekwondo, could be fighting for a medal by this Saturday evening in the men's 58kg; McClenaghan is looking to win Ireland's first Olympic medal in gymnastics, having already won that honour at European and World level.
Again, don’t mistake their confidence for cockiness. “You’re not going to turn up to the Games and say I’m going for a bronze,” Woolley said recently; he’s seeded sixth in Tokyo. “Over a period of time I’ve built up confidence. Do I feel I can win it? Of course I can because I’ve beaten some of the athletes who are going to the Olympics, the ones that have beaten me, it’s been close. If I perform 100 per cent on the day there’s absolutely no reason I can’t win the gold medal. When I fight well, I’m unstoppable.”
McClenaghan has always taken that approach on to the pommel horse. “I know I can compete against the Olympic champion, that I can post some of the biggest scores in the world, it would be almost silly not to aim for gold every time.”
For Annalise Murphy, sailing conditions in Tokyo may differ from her silver medal win in Rio, only her experience is even greater.
In boxing, Michaela and Aidan Walsh and Kellie Harrington all got byes through the first round, and who could discount the men's Rugby Sevens after their heroically impressive effort in qualifying?
Six months ago, according to the Gracenote Virtual Medal Table (who boast a good record on these matters) Team Ireland was also predicted to win gold thanks to the equestrian-showjumping team.
Then there’s Rory McIlroy: Gracenote originally predicted he would finish fourth, before dropping him to seventh, only McIlroy’s attitude after last weekend’s British Open might well be judged as something else.
“I’m not a very patriotic guy, I’m doing it because I think it’s the right thing to do. I missed it last time, and for golf to be an Olympic sport you need your best players there, and I feel like I want to represent the game of golf more than anything else.” Go Rory, Go!
IRISH MEDAL PROSPECTS IN TOKYO
All final times are Irish, should, if or when the Irish finalists progress that far.
Saturday, July 24th
Jack Woolley – taekwondo 58kg final* (11am)
Still only 22, and already making Irish Olympic history, Woolley also got the draw he expected, but faces a tricky last eight against an Iranian opponent. Unlike boxing, there will also be a fight-off for bronze and fourth.
Wednesday, July 28th
Philip Doyle and Ronan Byrne – men's doubles sculls rowing final* (12.30am)
Silver medal winners at the 2019 World Championships, and if anything the year out during Covid-19 (allowing Philip Doyle to return to his medical career) has only deepened their desire and ability to taste Olympic success.
Ireland men's rugby Sevens Team – Finals* (3am)
They upstaged a lot of bigger teams in the Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco last month, including hosts and favourites France, to nail the last qualifying spot, their competitiveness now freshly cut for some further upset, perhaps.
Thursday, July 29th
Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy – lightweight men's doubles sculls rowing final* (12.30am)
Paul is already one of the most decorated medal winners in Irish sport – at World, European and Olympic level – and in the company of young Fintan McCarthy Olympic gold now beckons.
Friday, July 30th
Sanita Puspure – women's singles sculls rowing final* (12.45am)
At age 39 she continues to leave the younger rowers in her wake, her experience and desire for gold now perhaps her greatest asset.
Sunday, August 1st
Rhys McClenaghan – men's pommel final* (9am)
He’s been talking a big performance well in advance of Tokyo, working on a new routine to help demonstrate just how good he is, and if he pulls it off he’ll be hard to top.
Sam Watson, Sarah Ennis and Cathal Daniels – eventing showjumping team and individual equestrian (9am)
With Cathal Daniels winning medals at practically every grade and every stage he's so far competed on, the Olympics may be the platform to prove just how good he and his team mates are.
Annalise Murphy – laser radial sailing medal race (4am)
Silver in Rio five years ago, and even if a little less certainty around her form this time, she’s been here, done that.
Rory McIlroy – men's individual strokeplay golf fourth round (11.30pm – Saturday night start)
God knows what Rory McIlroy will actually show up, but he can’t dismissed as a medal prospect.
Tuesday, August 3rd
Michaela Walsh – women's featherweight boxing final* (3am)
One of only two Irish boxers seeded coming into Tokyo. With a bye through the first round, this could be first of two success stories for Irish boxing in Tokyo
Wednesday, August 4th
Bertram Allen, Cian O'Connor and Darragh Kenny – jumping individual equestrian final* (11am)
It may be nine years now since Cian O’Connor pulled off his magnificent individual show jumping bronze in London 2021, and still he’s lost none of his desire and appetite to compete on the Olympic stage. This can only spill over onto his team mates too.
Saturday, August 7th
Bertram Allen, Cian O'Connor and Darragh Kenny – jumping team equestrian final* (11am)
Sunday, August 8th
Kellie Harrington – women's lightweight boxing final* (6am)
The 2018 World champion didn’t fight for over a year going into the European Olympic qualifiers, only to show once again that her perfect combination of talent and hard work is often hard to stop.