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In Review: Highlights of a Sporting Year like No Other

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us a sporting year like no other. When the initial introduction of public health restrictions began on March 13th this year, they paved the way for a very truncated, yet entertaining fixture calendar. There have of course been some major losses, the Olympics and Euro 2020 to name a few. The latter loss of particular note, considering Dublin would have played host to a number of group-game fixtures. Moreover, Team Ireland had a record number of athletes competing in the 32nd Olympiad, and medal tallies were expected to exceed previous records. Sport at University level has been one of the biggest victims of the pandemic, and so we’ll have to wait till the new year before some highlights can be taken from what has so far been an uneventful academic year on the playing field.

The woes of the Irish men’s rugby team were one of the biggest talking points of 2020, and arguably for all the wrong reasons. The infamous fixture with Italy back in March is still scapegoated as a super-spreader event of the virus in Ireland, with the postponement call on the Six Nations fixture in Dublin not made soon enough to deter Italian fans from coming to the capital for the game. Things never seemed to get going with the squad upon the resumption of the campaign in October, despite an impressive beating of Italy. A lacklustre performance against France when the championship was still up for grabs set the tone for a rather deflated campaign in the Autumn International series the following month. A beating by an impressive English outfit in Twickenham was followed by another poor outing against an average Georgian outfit that Ireland made tough work of, only managing a mere 13 point winning margin against a team 7 places below them in International rankings. Questions have been asked on Andy Farrell’s tenure in charge, but the English man can’t be blamed for recent losses, deeper issues are present. The national squad have had few highs since the heroics of Soldier Field in 2016, and much remains to be worked on ahead of France hosting the 2023 World Cup.

On a not too distant frequency to the men’s rugby squad, our men’s football team had a very disappointing 2020. Blighted by Covid-19 cases, and controversy surrounding the build-up to the November friendly with England, things never seemed to take off for Stephen Kenny, in a year in which so much was expected of the League of Ireland maestro. The goal drought continues for the Republic, but hope can be sourced from the exciting young talent that promises to break into the senior side in the coming year or two. The women’s team also had their own fair share of disappointment in 2020, and despite some impressive performances by Vera Pauw’s charges, they failed in their attempt to qualify for a first major championship after defeat to European women’s football juggernaut Germany.

The GAA championships, at both club and intercounty level, have no doubt been one of the most exciting aspects of this condensed sporting year. Cork hurling and football fans were treated to the most enjoyable club championships in years, with the new fixture schedule providing some great battles. The club season this year benefitted from the decision by the GAA to operate a split-season between club and intercounty-level championships, with all club activity taking place uninterrupted between July and October. The success of this decision has been appreciated by the GAA and a decision will be made in December by the National Fixtures Committee as to whether the same set-up will be in place for 2021. The knockout nature of the Intercounty football championship has given viewers some mouthwatering ties, Cork’s defeat of Kerry in Round 1 of the Munster Football Championship and Cavan’s dethroning of Donegal in the Ulster Final have been some highlights. Few people back in January would have expected Tipperary’s progression to the All-Ireland Semi-Final after their first Munster-Final victory in 85 years, but in a historic year for the Premier County they will meet Mayo for a place in a pre-Christmas All-Ireland final. At the time of writing, Dublin, Mayo, Cavan, and Tipperary are the final four teams comprising this year’s Semi-Finals, and in the year that has given us many a shock, is it any surprise the latter two counties make up the final four pairings? The rise of the Waterford hurling squad under Liam Cahill continues, and the Déise will meet Limerick in the first All-Ireland Final between the two counties in the history of the GAA. The GAA must be given credit for their decision to continue the intercounty championships this year in spite of Level 5 restrictions, for many the games have shortened the long winter months and reminded us that there’s life outside of Covid-19. Here’s hoping for a great set of finals in the two weeks leading up to Christmas, to cap off a great year of GAA action.

It’s been a great year for Irish athletes on the global stage, as we continue to punch above our weight. After questions over whether the Tour de France would have to postpone its 2020 edition, a decision to shift the start date to August 29th was welcome news to Irish cycling enthusiasts. Sam Bennett, for his part, was one of the stars of this year’s race, as he ended the 31-year wait for an Irish cyclist to take the green jersey; UCC alumnus Sean Kelly the last. As the 2,000 mile race culminated down the Champs-Élysées in mid-September, Bennett made a break from the pack and became only the fifth green-jersey holder to win the final stage of the Tour de France. Dan Martin finished 41st, and Nicholas Roche 64th (his 10th Tour appearance), but the day belonged to Bennett, who will no doubt inspire a cycling revival amongst many young Irish men and women. Katie Taylor, for her part, reminded us again in 2020 why she is one of the country’s greatest sportspersons, after easily retaining her undisputed title against Miriam Gutierrez in November. The victory (100-89, 100-90, 99-91) meant Taylor remained undefeated in her 17th outing, and despite a 4th round knockdown, couldn’t end the duel prematurely via KO. A potential fight with MMA fighter Cris Cyborg is being rumoured by promoters at the moment, but for now we can just appreciate the quiet brilliance of Taylor.

The plight of Cork City football club was much in line with the 2020 zeitgeist, with the Turner’s Cross outfit confirming their relegation to the League of Ireland First Division on the 24th October after a very unimpressive league campaign. City finished at the bottom of the Airtricity League Table with all but 11 points to their name from 18 outings. An opportunity to rebuild in a lower division in 2021, but for a team who took both League and Cup honours in 2017, this season has been incredibly disappointing. A number of UCC students make up the City squad, so here’s hoping things pick up in 2021.

On the water, UCC students represented their country very successfully at European level. Ronan Byrne continues to dominate his class, as does fellow Quercus Sports Scholarship recipient Margaret Cremen who also took a podium place in this year’s European U23 Championships. Lydia Heaphy and Cliodhna Nolan also took Gold in the A Final of the BLW2. Things bode well for Cork and UCC representation in next year’s Olympic games in Tokyo, with a large chunk of Team Ireland’s squad hailing from the rebel county while also completing their studies on Western Road, or recent graduates. Here’s hoping they add to the success of UCC Alumnus Paul O’Donovan from the Rio Olympiad.

In the area of intervarsity sport, there has been little to no movement with many of our clubs. Rugby, Soccer, and Hockey squads have all been granted permission to resume training, but many clubs are still awaiting the go-ahead to get back on the field. The Rugby club have had some impressive victories in both pre-season and All-Ireland League fixtures, and here’s hoping that more success awaits in 2021. Thankfully, the business end of many UCC Clubs takes place in the second semester of the Academic Year, and so all things going well, we should still hope to see some intervarsity silverware on Western Road. Freshers are being asked to monitor the social media channels of their Sports Club, as a number of fresher trials are expected to take place in the opening weeks of the semester. With positive news emerging regarding vaccines and lower virus transmission rates, it’s hoped that the majority of clubs can return to play, and that freshers can get the opportunity to represent their college, after a semester of remote learning and limited campus activity. Let’s hope 2021 sees the return of the skull & crossbones to the top table of intervarsity sport.