Rachel Blackmore pips Paul O'Donovan in Top 10 Irish Sports Stars selection
So many class athletes and performances to chose from.
The selecting, narrowing down conferring and debating is over. This is the strongest top 10 list of Irish sports stars we've seen for a very long time.
2021 saw Irish sports stars win massive individual accolades, medals of all varieties (and hefts), play big roles to beat mighty teams and feature prominently in Grand Nationals, world title fights, Lions Tours, marquee finals, Ryder and Solheim Cups and the Tokyo Olympics.
The SportsJOE team has looked back on a jam-packed year of huge sport occasions and selected our top 10 list of Irish sports stars of 2021. Before we get there, a couple of bonus awards to dispense...
Young Sports Star of the Year: Emer McKee
Aged 12 and already a world record holder. The Belfast athlete set a world's best time [for her age group] for a 5 kilometre run, earlier this year. She then went out and shaved another 13 seconds off that marker - 16 minutes and 27 seconds. In October, she beat a stacked field over 2.6km at the London Mini Marathon.
When we asked her for the secret of her athletic success, she replied - "I just try to run as fast as I can so it will over quickly."
Feel-good Sports Story of the Year: Meath stun the mighty Dubs
No-one was giving Meath much hope in the Ladies Football Final against a Dublin side that were going for the 5-in-a-row. Meath had been down in the Intermediates the previous year and while they looked to be a coming force, they were not expected to trouble a talented set of Dubs.
Inspired by Vikki Wall, Emma Duggan and Niamh O'Sullivan, though, the Royal County led at the break and were composed in the closing stages to stun their opponents.
Without further ado, here is our countdown from No.10 to No.1.
Top 10 list of Irish sports stars
10. Gavin Bazunu
The former Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper started the year as third-choice for Ireland and ends it as our undoubted No.1. Kept Portugal scoreless in Dublin, pulled off a worldie against Luxembourg, frustrated Serbia and saved a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, while he was at it. Currently starring on loan [four consecutive clean sheets] from Manchester City with Portsmouth.
9. Jason Smyth
At the Tokyo Paralympics, the Derry native became the 100-metres Paralympics champion, in the T-13 class, for a fourth consecutive time. Was pushed all the way by Algerian flyer Skander Djamil Athmani but finished strong to win gold. If you want to know how good Jason Smyth is, just look at how everyone in the Paralympics is in awe of the guy. A hero to many, within and beyond these shores.
8. Jack Conan
Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw had impressive years, and starred for Leinster, Ireland and the Lions, but the journey Jack Conan went on sees him make our Top 10. Missed out on the Ireland match-day 23 for their Six Nations openers but came in when Caelan Doris was injured. Started at No.8 in a home win over England that won him a Lions call-up. Expected to make up the numbers, by many, he started all three Tests against the Springboks and then starred in Ireland's 29-20 win over the All Blacks, in November.
7. Leona Maguire
Up to No.43 in the world, thanks to eight Top 15 finishes in stacked fields on the toughest courses in women's golf. Came close to her first LPGA Tour win before having to settle for 2nd. In the middle of it all - and the main reason she features so highly - came a world-class performance over three thrilling days at the Solheim Cup. The Cavan native was a Solheim rookie but never once looked it as she recorded a superb 4.5 out of a possible 5 points to inspire Europe to victory.
6. Katie Taylor
Natasha Jonas, Jennifer Han and Firuza Sharipova have all stepped up. All three of them had to bow down.
Frustrated with a Covid-hit sporting calendar and forced to take fights in the UK - biding her time for big US fights in 2022 - Katie Taylor has recorded three unanimous points wins to move to 20-0 in her professional career.
5. Cian Lynch
It would be hard to single out any one player from a truly fierce and sublime Limerick team, but that is how good Cian Lynch is.
If Limerick are head and shoulders above their nearest challengers, Lynch is the tip of the crown. Superb as the Treaty County swept all comers aside to win the Liam MacCarthy, and was duly named Hurler of the Year for the second time in three years.
4. Fintan McCarthy
Not so long ago, he was an eager rowing fan craning his neck to see local Skibbereen heroes Paul and Gary O'Donovan return with silver from the Rio Olympics. McCarthy and his brother Jake made early strides but he has been a perfect foil to Paul O'Donovan in 2019. This year, the duo have won European and Olympic gold, and no-one has come close to holding a candle.
3. Kellie Harrington
The Dubliner went into the Tokyo Olympics as fancied in her division as Katie Taylor was in 2012 and 2016. With the weight of expectations on her shoulders, she sailed through her first two fights before digging deep to defeat Sudaporn Seesondee in the semis. Faced with the dangerous Beatriz Ferreira in the final, she recorded her third 5-0 result of the games to claim gold for Ireland. All the way through, she was an inspiration and carried herself superbly.
2. Paul O'Donovan
The strangest part about his Lightweight Doubles Sculls gold medal victory at the Tokyo Olympics was how serene it was. Having breezed into the final with dominant outings, Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy started off behind the Germans in the final but relentlessly hunted them down and powered by with plenty to spare. Heavily favoured for two years coming into the games, the pressure was squarely on O'Donovan as the more established of the pairing. He was as unflappable and glib as ever. A genuine star.
1. Rachel Blackmore
Look back at that list above and then consider how Rachel Blackmore was our unanimous winner. That's how remarkable her 2021 was.
The Tipperary native became the first female jockey ever to win the Grand National, and was also leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival [six wins, including the Champion Hurdle], won the Irish Grand National and the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Also won the RTÉ Sports Person of the Year and BBC World Sports Star awards, but we are certain sitting pretty in our Top 10 beats them all. As we wrote, earlier this year, the so-called 'Sport of Kings' has a new queen.