TEAM NI REVIEW: Nigel Ringland’s assessment of Northern Ireland’s Games

From L-R Steven Donnelly , Sean Duffy (Bronze Medalist) , Gold medalist  Boxer Michael Conlan and Alana Murphy (Bronze ) Michaela Walsh (Silver) and Sean McGlinchy (bronze)
From L-R Steven Donnelly , Sean Duffy (Bronze Medalist) , Gold medalist Boxer Michael Conlan and Alana Murphy (Bronze ) Michaela Walsh (Silver) and Sean McGlinchy (bronze)

It was the fourth Commonwealth Games I’ve reported on dating back 12 years and at the end there is the compulsory review piece, looking back and reflecting on the performance of Northern Ireland’s athletes.

So with the disclaimer that all the views written here are my own, here we go......

Firstly the stats – Northern Ireland won 12 medals – 2 gold, 3 silver and 7 bronze – two more than Delhi four years ago, in fact the most since Edinburgh in 1986 although compared with 2010 the medals were won in one fewer sports.

It’s also worth noting that for many of the 117 strong team this will be the last time they will represent Northern Ireland until the Gold Coast Games in four years time – there are exceptions such as bowls and netball – but for the most part they’ll be absorbed back into the Ireland or Great Britain set-ups with European and World Championships and the 2016 Olympics in Rio the targets for many.

On the international stage, in many ways, Northern Ireland doesn’t exist as a sporting country.

Which is why the Commonwealth Games are unique and a lot of the Northern Ireland team have spoken publically about how proud they have been to represent the country in Glasgow.

As always the sport has seen its successes and disappointments, smiles and tears.

Let’s start with the boxers.

Nine medals is an astonishing achievement and John Conlan and his coaches deserve all the praise they are receiving for a magnificent job and it says a lot that Conlan was disappointed in only turning nine semi-finalists into two gold medals, won by his son Michael and the incomparable Paddy Barnes, both worthy champions and leading by example in the ring.

Michaela Walsh was unlucky as she lost out to the reputation of Olympic champion Nicola Adams more so than her boxing skills and 19 year-old Joe Fitzpatrick showed his potential in winning silver.

Boxing is one of few sports where Ireland truly has a world class development programme based at the High Performance Centre in Dublin and is a case study for other sports to follow.

Rather like GB cycling there is enormous depth pushing from the bottom up – if your performance level drops there is someone right behind looking to take your place.

There is great coaching and yes, substantial funding, all of which is necessary to produce winners.

Not all the Northern Ireland team are based in Dublin but with co-operation with the Ulster Council and Sports Institute of Northern Ireland this was a well-prepared squad, just like four years ago, and its worth noting that in 2002 and 2006 Northern Ireland failed to win a boxing medal at the Commonwealth Games.

In too many sports there is a comfort zone for athletes because they aren’t being pushed from within their own country within that sport.

In Northern Ireland/Irish boxing you know if you are the best in the country, you are among the best in the world – in other sports winning local and national competitions week in, week out does not prepare you for the level of competition you will meet at an event like the Commonwealth Games.

Likewise Northern Ireland has some of the best bowlers in the Commonwealth and silver for the men’s triples and bronze for the women’s pair was a solid return.

Neil Booth’s fourth medal in five Games and Barbara Cameron’s first over the same span of time was reward as they both call it a day on their international careers.

The other medal came in judo from 2012 Olympian Lisa Kearney who continues to show that her development is on the right path.

Bronze could have very easily been gold but for a controversial refereeing decision.

There were some near misses – David Calvert narrowly missed out on a ninth medal in his incredible career spanning 10 Games when he finished fourth in the full bore rifle event, bowler Catherine McMillan was beaten in a bronze medal match as was wrestler Hugh McCloskey and Eoin Fleming in the judo.

There were other notable performances with Aileen Reid taking sixth place in a world-class women’s triathlon field and the sport showed it too has depth, as the relay squad were also sixth.

Eighteen-year-old Nicole Mawhinney was 16th in the all-around final of the gymnastics, Madeline Perry, in her fifth Games, beat Kasey Brown from Australia to reach the quarter-finals of the squash. Brown was the player who had beaten her in the last eight in Delhi four years ago.

Fourteen-year-old Danielle Hill showed all the poise of someone twice her age as she won a swim-off to reach the semi-finals of the 100m backstroke and set a new personal best in doing so.

The swimming team, a young squad of 10 with eight under the age of 20, set nine personal bests, five Ulster records and made 12 individual semi-finals.

The netball girls, the first time Northern Ireland has ever been represented in a team sport, finished seventh ahead of their target of eighth while the badminton team had more last 16 performances than ever before.

In athletics Dempsey McGuigan made the men’s hammer final while Amy Foster ran strongly to reach the semi-finals of the 100m for the second Games in a row.

Katie Kirk delivered on her potential with a personal best in the semi-finals of the women’s 800m where she was only denied a place in the final by being in the quicker of the two races.

But there were notable disappointments as well.

Former world champion Martyn Irvine was at a loss to explain his poor rides in the points and scratch races while Sycerika McMahon was left looking for answers for her times in the pool and the weather turned the women’s pole vault into a farce with Zoe Brown’s medal chances washed away along with almost everyone else.

There were others as well who didn’t live up to the standards they expect of themselves and no one takes it harder than the athlete themselves.

How do we get better and more successful across a wider range of sports?

As Katie Kirk pointed out, she doesn’t get to race against the best caliber of athletes all that often and when she did she showed what she could do and this is a problem facing many of our athletes.

You can’t expect to get better unless you are competing against high quality opposition on a regular basis.

Getting into the last 16 in badminton or table tennis or a semi-final on the track may be an admirable goal at the moment but how do you turn that into a higher aspiration?

The issues involved from funding to development programmes to coaching to elite performance delivery are complex and not without a lot of politics involved but the commitment and co-operation between DCAL, Sport NI, Sports Institute of Northern Ireland, Commonwealth Games Council and the individual sports themselves to deliver on the above must be 100% and focused entirely on the athletes in order to get the best performances possible.

I’ve seen a pride in representing Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games over the past 12 years but in the four Games I’ve covered I’ve only seen medals won in five sports – bowls, boxing, shooting, cycling and judo.

I suspect in 2018 Northern Ireland’s boxers, shooters and bowlers will be pretty good.

It would be nice to see other sports have medal success.

Glasgow was a very good Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland, one of the best ever - the work towards making the Gold Coast Games even better begins today.