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Sports Review 2023: In this golden age of Irish sport, the fallback of honour in defeat no longer exists

Ireland’s sportspeople used to be good at losing. Finally the ‘wee Tricolour’ has become a force to be reckoned with

At the World Athletics Championships in August Ciara Mageean gave an interview while the race was still red on her cheeks. She had just come fourth in the final of the 1,500m, running the fastest time of her life to finish less than a second outside the silver medal position.

Before a microphone was put in her hand there wasn’t time to rehearse how she felt. For more than three minutes she fought with the outcome live on TV, filling the scales in her mind, not dictating which way they would tip. “To be disappointed with fourth in the world,” she said, “is probably a good thing.”

After the greatest performance of her life she wasn’t prepared to be satisfied just because that option was handy or wouldn’t be condemned. It was too complicated.

“I just know that I have it,” she said. “It’s there ... I feel I’m up there [with the best]. I’ve earned my place. Now people will fear when they see a wee Tricolour up on the start line.”

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When we were good at losing we instinctively knew what to say and how to feel. For Irish sport in the international arena, it was a cultural thing. There was a short menu of hand-me-down responses. Honour in defeat was a form of recycling. In that process something was salvaged; not everything was lost.

That undergarment no longer exists. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the athletes have stripped it away. The thought of winning was no longer hidden for fear of failure. Not winning became more repulsive.

At the Rugby World Cup, only one outcome would have constituted success. This was a gateway breakthrough that needed to happen before anything else could. It didn’t matter that Ireland had won another Grand Slam in the spring or had built a sequence of 17 Test victories, or had beaten the world champions at the pool stages or had produced the greatest performance of any Irish team in the knock-out phase of the competition.

Ireland had entered the tournament as the number one team in the world. They didn’t have a sliding scale of acceptable outcomes. Not getting past the quarterfinals was a big deal for every other Irish team that had contested a World Cup in the professional era. For this team, it meant they couldn’t win the tournament. There was no other metric. Nothing else mattered.

“I don’t think there was ever a point in the game where the lads felt they couldn’t do it,” said Paul O’Connell after the loss to New Zealand. That was the mentality they had cultivated: carefully, deliberately, by consensus. In the history of the World Cup, no other Irish team had arrived at that point together.

By putting themselves in that position there was nothing to break their fall. To have any chance they had to embrace that vulnerability. From there, failure was brutal. In Irish sport, soft falls have had their day.

So, winning is hard. After he won gold on the pommel horse at the World Gymnastics championships for the second year in a row, Rhys McClenaghan spoke about the weakness that had visited him and the strength he found. At a World Cup event in Paris, a few weeks before the championships, McClenaghan suffered a “panic attack”.

In the build-up to his title defence McClenaghan and his support team didn’t concern themselves with anything else. “When I woke up every morning,” he said, “I asked myself how I was feeling.” Day-by-day, they managed it. “Although you don’t want to be diving too deep into those thoughts and picking apart your mind before a big championship, it felt like it was now or never. I know now that it’s a bad thing to bottle up too much. It’s not something I want to do again.”

McClenaghan belongs to a generation of Irish athletes that are knocking down walls. At the USPGA Leona Maguire led a major after 54 holes for the first time in her career. On the Sunday she couldn’t find a putt and dropped outside the top 10. Tom Abbott, a commentator with Golf Channel, said he had seen Maguire in the car park afterwards looking “distraught”. Asked a few weeks later how long it had taken her to recover and she said “a day”, matter of factly. “You have to get on with things pretty quickly, dust yourself off.”

At the Solheim Cup in September Maguire was a tower of strength and nerve, inscrutable behind her dark glasses and rapt expression. Emily Kristine Pedersen dubbed her the “silent assassin”. Suzann Pettersen, the European captain, told her months in advance that she would be playing in all five sessions. In just her second Solheim Cup, that was her importance to the team. Of the 24 players, only two others didn’t sit out a session; only two players, one on either team, banked more points than Maguire.

Among the young guns the absence of fear is a common trait. When Rhasidat Adeleke lined up for the final of NCAAs – the universities championship in the United States – there were probably three more fancied runners in the race. On her home track at Texas University she blitzed them in a new championship record. Immediately after crossing the line her eye was drawn to a TV camera. “I’m not losing on my track, baby,” Adeleke said down the camera’s lens.

Adeleke set seven new Irish records this year, taking her tally to an astonishing 14. No Irish female athlete had won a medal on the track at the World Championships since Sonia O’Sullivan in 1995; a week short of her 21st birthday Adeleke finished fourth, denied a podium finish by half a second. At the Olympics in Paris next summer she will be our best chance of a medal on the track since Sonia in Sydney, two years before Adeleke was born.

At the same Games, Paul O’Donovan will seek to become the first Irish athlete to win medals at three Olympics. In the golden age of Irish sport, O’Donovan is one of the people we take for granted. He won his sixth World Championship gold medal this year. Have you forgotten the fuss over one gold medal?

There are others like O’Donovan whose brilliance is so familiar and uncontested that our attention lapses. Willie Mullins trained the 4,000th winner of his career in January; Aidan O’Brien trained the 4,000th winner of his career in September. In the history of Irish racing only Dermot Weld had beaten them to that summit, and when Weld hands in his license one of the others will eventually set a record that will stand for lifetimes.

Johnny Sexton left; Stephen Cluxton came back. During the revolution in Irish sport since the turn of the century, the greatest change has been cultural: understanding what it took to be an elite sports person, committing to that life, unconditionally. Under that banner, Sexton and Cluxton led the most successful dressingrooms in Irish sport.

Brian Fenton said that on Cluxton’s first night back at Dublin training, more than two years after he disappeared behind an iron curtain, he was pointing out stuff in a video review meeting. Nobody was inclined to say that he should mind his manners and take his time.

In July, Cluxton, James McCarthy and Mick Fitzsimons won their ninth All-Ireland football medals, a new record. In the All-Ireland final Cluxton hit his target with 23 kick-outs, without fail. Afterwards, he was the only one of the Dublin players not to mount the steps of the Hogan Stand and hold the Sam Maguire aloft. He never had any truck with the paraphernalia of glory. Winning was the thing.

Four days later, the Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon announced his retirement at 45 years of age. Cluxton is 42. No word yet. No word due.

For Sexton and Cluxton, the interrogation of performance never stopped. When the women’s football team qualified for the World Cup it was the measure of their dreams. How did they feel when it was over? Unfulfilled. Were they prepared to accept that? Watchful conservatism had taken them so far, but the players were convinced it was time to take more risks. The manager begged to differ.

Vera Pauw didn’t survive an FAI review. If the players had expressed a wish for her to stay, Pauw’s contract would have been renewed. The players wanted the team to move in a different direction: more attacking, less fearful. Down that road there are no soft falls. In the spirit of the age, they backed themselves.

Did we doubt the Limerick hurlers? Deny it, you liar. They half-stumbled through the Munster championship: losing, drawing, winning, barely. In Croke Park? They trailed by six against Galway in the semi-final; in the final Kilkenny led them by five, early in the second half. After that? Limerick obliterated them.

Between Paddy Deegan’s goal for Kilkenny and the final whistle Limerick scored 19 points; a few of them were among the most outlandish points ever scored in a hurling final. No hurling team has ever won five All-Irelands in-a-row. Are you still doubtful?

Katie Taylor said everyone doubted her. She said she was “half-offended” that “so many people were writing me off.” She described the six months between her loss to Chantelle Cameron and the rematch as the longest of her life. On that rapturous evening in the 3Arena she delivered a performance of monumental defiance, becoming the first Irish boxer to hold two world titles. “It feels like the greatest night of my career – so far.”

She was no good at losing.