Wednesday, January 09, 2019

THE year stretches out ahead of us and the possibilities are endless, or so it seems. In January, every championship is still there for the taking, every game still there to be won. All we have to do is convince ourselves that this year will be ours, if only we put in the work and get a few breaks along the way.

At the very least it’s the time of year to wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of hope for the months to come before Hobbes’ old line about life being “nasty, brutish and short” rears its head.

So with that in mind here, in no particular order, are five dates for your diary, when sports fans, near and far, will begin to find out if this could be their year.

12 May

It’s going to be a case of frying pans and fires for the Carlow senior hurlers in 2019. The national league will throw a series of roadblocks in front of Colm Bonnar’s men as they settle into life in the relative altitude of Division 1B. Dublin, Galway, Laois, Waterford and Offaly present big challenges from the end of January through to March.

Then the grander scale of the Leinster senior hurling championship begins on Sunday 12 May when Carlow travel to Galway to take on last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists in Pearse Stadium. It begins a run of fixtures that will see Kilkenny and Dublin come to Netwatch Cullen Park with an away trip to Wexford also throw into the mix in the second week of June.

How sweet it will be for Carlow hurling supporters to see their team line up against marquee teams week in week out.

Of course the challenges will be immense but this is exactly what Bonnar and his team have been working towards since they came into the job.

Time to turn up the heat.

22 September

In the wake of a magnificent November series by the Irish rugby team, bold predictions and bare-faced hype have already begun to take over. But we will simply look towards our opening game of the World Cup in Japan when Ireland take on Scotland in Yokohama.

Mission one is winning a pool which includes Scotland, Russia, Samoa and the host nation. That would likely set up a quarter-final clash with South Africa as opposed to New Zealand. But from a local standpoint that Scottish game is the one in which we desperately hope to see Sean O’Brien lining up in the backrow.

His latest injury – a broken arm suffered against Argentina in November – is on the mend. He was an interested spectator at the Tullow v Carlow Leinster League game on Sunday and said he hopes to be back in training in the next couple of weeks. Getting him through to the autumn in good fettle is the priority.

If Ireland are to make a serious dent in the tournament – the final is on 2 November, since you asked – they will need a full deck from which to choose. And they will need O’Brien every bit as much as he wants to be there. Right from the very start.

25/26 May

It’s a nice touch that last year’s provincial semi-finalists get a bye through to the quarter-finals of the Leinster senior football championship and so Carlow can watch with interest when Meath and Offaly fight it out for the right to take on Turlough O’Brien’s men on the last weekend of the month.

After two years in which great strides forward have been taken, the challenge now is to consolidate and move forward again. Neither Meath nor Offaly will scare Carlow. Particularly after Saturday’s win over the latter in the O’Byrne Cup. With a Leinster semi-final on the cards against either Westmeath or last year’s nemesis Laois, there’s plenty to fight for.

By then, of course, they will have run through their NFL Division 3 campaign and comfortably secured promotion to Division 2!

23 March

A new era begins for the Rep of Ireland football team, albeit a relatively short one if the FAI’s manager succession plan is taken at face value.

After the European Championships Stephen Kenny will take the reins but until then it’s up to Mick McCarthy to steer a course for the team through the qualifiers which begin with a trip to the footballing hotbed that is Gibraltar.

It’s hard to say that morale was at an all-time low at the end of the Martin O’Neill era, only because there has been serious competition for that title over the years – see the end of the Trapattoni and Staunton eras as cases in point.

Suffice to say it’s no harm that there is a new broom sweeping things clean ahead of the qualifiers. Ireland will also face Georgia, Switzerland and the new ‘auld enemy’, Denmark, before the end of November.

There is also cause for optimism, with Michael Obafemi beginning to make a name for himself at Southampton and the continuing slim chance that Declan Rice might actually resist the temptation to declare for England.

Irish football supporters are crying out for something to cheer about. Let’s hope it starts well on the rock.

12 March

Christmas is hardly behind us but thoughts are already turning to Cheltenham and the annual gathering of the great and the good of National Hunt in the Cotswolds.

As ever, Willie Mullins will bring a full roster of stable stars who will keep racing followers in Carlow and far beyond on the edge of their seats.

Every week, little snippets of updates are coming from Closutton about his plans. It’s likely he’ll head straight to the Gold Cup with Kemboy after his win at Leopardstown in the Grade One Savills Chase, skipping the option to run him in the Irish Gold Cup in Leopardstown in the first week of February.

Could he finally bring Mullins a first win in the biggest race of the week, after saddling the runner-up six times.

Sharjah took the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown under Patrick and he’s another that will probably skip Leopardstown in February in favour of a clear run at Cheltenham and the Champion Hurdle.

That’s just two shots from what will be a fully-loaded weapon come March. Lots to look forward to.

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By John Foley
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