Irish boxers target place in World Championship final

Michael Conlan is the first Irish fighter in the ring today at 17:45
Michael Conlan is the first Irish fighter in the ring today at 17:45

MORE than a quarter of a century has passed since RTE commentator George Hamilton made his immortal comment 'the nation holds its breath' as Dave O'Leary stepped up to take that penalty against Romania in the 1990 World Cup final.

Today the Irish nation holds its breath again as the Irish rugby and soccer teams go for glory in Cardiff and Warsaw respectively.

It would be a shame, however, if in the inevitable hype surrounding the matches against France and Poland respectively that perspective was lost on what the Irish boxers achieved in Doha yesterday. And the best may have yet to come!

For the first time since the World Boxing championships began in Cuba in 1974 Ireland is guaranteed to go home with three medals – their colour will be decided in the ring over the next five days. Up until yesterday Ireland had only ever won nine medals at this level – one silver and eight bronze.

John Joe Nevin won two of those bronze medals in Milan in 2009 and two years later in Baku. Tommy Corr won the first in 1982 and the other medallists at World level were Michael Carruth (1989), Damaen Kelly (1993), Stephen Kirk (1997) and Jamie Moore in 2001 when Belfast hosted the championships.

At the last World championships in Almaty in 2013 Donegal's Jason Quigley became the first Irish boxer to reach a World championship final but was defeated so he took home a silver medal while Joe Ward, then aged 19, won a bronze.

Those two medals combined with the three the squad are assured of in Doha means that five of the 12 medals that Ireland has won at these championships have come at the last two championships and seven of the dozen medals have been won since the High Performance Unit was set up in 2002.

It is an astonishing strike rate by any standards and places Ireland right up among the top boxing nations in the world.

Only Cuba (7), Uzbekistan (6), Russia (4) and Azerbaijan (4) will top Ireland in the medals' table in Doha.

Ireland only took seven boxers to Doha; four of them reached the last eight and three of those medalled. In contrast, while Great Britain also had four boxers in the quarters only one – super heavy weight Joseph Joyce survived.

Just 18 countries will bring home medals from Qatar, which underlines how competitive this championship – the first that boxers had to pre-qualify for – is. But Michael Conlan, Michael O'Reilly and Joe Ward now want to go further and contest the finals.

In the case of Ward and O'Reilly, reaching the World championship final will guarantee them a place at the Rio Olympics. Conlan has already qualified.

While there was speculation yesterday that O'Reilly would be Rio bound regardless of the result of tonight's semi-finals as one of other semi-finalists in the middleweight category, Julia La Cruz from Cuba has already secured Olympic qualification through the WSB series, this is by no means certain.

In the likely event of La Cruz winning his semi-final it appears the Cuban National Federation has the option of either taking up the place secured through the WBS series or the World championships. Amazingly, nobody knows for sure what the precise procedure is and the only official comments from AIBA was that a decision wouldn't be announced until December!

At the outset of the championships head coach Billy Walsh had targeted two medals and the general consensus was that Conlan and Ward – Ireland's only seeded boxers – were the prime candidates to finish on the podium.

Even though his form all year has been outstanding, nonetheless the performances of 22 year old Michael O'Reilly has been a revelation. He won the gold medal at the inaugural European Games in Baku and interestingly he faced today's opponent Bektemir Melikuziev from Uzbekistan at a multi nation tournament in Bulgaria last February.

On that occasion he lost in the final to Melikuziev – who is regarded as one of the hottest properties in amateur boxing at the moment – on a split decision. One suspects Irish coaches Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia will have learned much from that encounter.

The Irish certainly used their knowledge of World champion Zhanibek Alimkhanuly from Kazakhstan to telling effect to engineer O'Reilly's stunning quarter final victory. Alimkhanuly beat Jason Quigley in the middleweight final in Almaty in 2013 by counter punching the Donegal boxer.

So O'Reilly was under specific instructions not to go forward and he showed nerves of steel and wonderful footwork and anticipation to execute the plan and beat the Kazakh.

European champion Michael Conlan will start as favourite tonight against Dzmitry Asanau from Belarus in the bantamweight semi-final.

Having become only the third Irish boxer to medal at Olympic, World and European level the 23-year-old Belfast pugilist now wants to mint the gold medal in Doha.

“This team keeps breaking barriers, “ said Walsh. “We had two (medallists) in Kazakhan two years ago where we had ten boxers whereas we had seven boxers here and won three. It is a great conversion rate. Now we're not happy with the bronze medal position. All three want to be at least in the silver. We want to have three Irishmen in the final for the first time and what's to say that we can't do it.”

All this has been achieved against the backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the future of Walsh, who is reportedly considering an offer to coach the US women's boxing team. The reality is that Walsh ought to be as much revered in Ireland as Joe Schmidt and Martin O'Neill are at this moment.

The first item on the agenda of the new IABA President Pat Ryan – who coaches Michael O'Reilly at club level – ought to be securing the services of Walsh not just for the Rio Olympics but for whatever number of years the Wexford man wants to remain in charge of the Elite team.

And if the IABA failed to do this the Irish Sports Council – who essentially funds the IABA – should step in and insist that Walsh and Zaur Anita are made an offer they cannot refuse. Anything else would represent an astonishing lack of foresight by those responsible for the future well being of Irish sport.

How the medals will be shared out in Doha:

7 Cuba; 6 Uzbekistan; 4 Ajeribjan & Russia; 3 Ireland; 2 Kazakhstan, China & Ukraine, 1 Philippines, India, Belarus, Thailand, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil, Morocco, Great Britain and France.