Having highlighted the talents of West Cork’s top sportswomen last week, we now take a look at 12 West Cork men who compete at the highest level in their chosen sports. And as 2016 starts to take shape, KIERAN McCARTHY explains why each of these sportsmen could leave their fingerprints all over this year’s sporting landscape
Conor and David Harte
The 27-year-old Ballinspittle twins have been busy clocking up the air miles as they juggle their club hockey abroad and training with the Irish senior men’s hockey team back home in Ireland. Goalkeeper David (also Ireland’s captain) and defender Conor played key role’s as the Irish men’s hockey team qualified for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio – becoming the first Irish team to play at an Olympics since 1908.
David was named world hockey’s goalkeeper of the year in January and plays his club hockey with Dutch outfit Kapong, who are in a battle for a top-four spot. Conor’s team, Royal Racing Club in Brussels, are currently top of the Belgian league and have qualified for the playoffs. The next few months will see the Hartes, as well as full-time training, involved in international test matches against Great Britain and Germany, a six nations tournament in June in Spain, and then a game against Holland in Cork at the beginning of July.
The Irish team of 16 for the Games will then be selected. Ahead of the Olympics, the team will travel to Argentina and have a training camp with matches. Busy times indeed for the former Bandon Grammar School students.
Gaelic Football, Castlehaven
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Castlehaven footballer was underrated, and his ability to cut it at the very top level was questioned – but Collins has proved his doubters wrong in recent seasons to become an important player for the Cork seniors.
Collins (26) works as an accountant with his father, Francis, whose office is on Bridge St, Skibbereen, and when you tot up the numbers, it’s easy to see why this skilful and flexible attacker has risen to the top.
He can play in a variety of positions, anywhere in the forwards to midfield or as a sweeper, and the key is to get him on the ball and use his range of passes because he has the ability to dictate the flow of a game, not to mention score himself.
Recognised as an intelligent player and tactically savvy, perhaps his ability to slot into different positions has worked against him with Cork – but if Peadar Healy’s target of turning the Rebels back in the direction of the good times, Collins will have a role to play.
In two weeks’ time, this Bandon man will lead out English League 1 club Barnsley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final against Oxford at Wembley on Sunday, April 3rd. As far as we know, Conor is the first West Cork man to captain a team at a final at Wembley – a fabulous achievement in itself.
The former Republic of Ireland U19 and U21 international (25) has made a terrific impact at Barnsley since his move from Plymouth Argyle in June 2014, having captained the Pilgrims and making over 142 appearances.
The midfielder’s first season with Barnsley saw him win the Fans’ Player of the Year award, and he has kicked on again this season, driving the team’s promotion play-off push after a dreadful start to the season – it included eight defeats in a row – that saw them languishing in the lower reaches of the table (23rd place in November). They are now in sixth place. At one point, just over a week ago, Barnsley were the third most in-form team in leagues in Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France, after winning 12 and drawing one of their previous 15 games. Only Juventus and Barcelona performed better than the Tykes in this period.
Made club captain in December, Conor has nine goals (second top scorer) and 14 assists to his name in this campaign.
The current All-Ireland senior men’s bowling champion is chasing a unique three-in-a-row at the European Championships in Holland in May (6th to 8th).
Having won individual gold on the road at the Europeans on home tar in Cork in 2008, he defended his crown in Pesaro, Italy, four years later, so in Ootmarsum in a few weeks’ time, the Brinny man will lead the Irish charge as he bids for a third European title in a row. Incidentally, his younger brother Aidan won gold in the Dutch Moors event in Pesaro. David’s father and uncle were also senior bowlers.
Before his second-ever All-Ireland senior men’s final win, against Ulster’s Thomas Mackle last August at Portmor-Blackwatertown, Tyrone, David (31) had endured a barren four years since his previous All-Ireland final appearance – a shock loss to Conor McGuigan at Tassagh in 2011.
Take out the European success in 2012, and a man once described as ‘the most gifted bowler of his generation’ hadn’t fulfilled his potential, having announced his arrival with a fantastic All-Ireland win against Michael Toal in Skibbereen back in 2008. But he returned to form to win Munster and All-Ireland honours last season, and he’s one of Ireland’s top medal prospects at the Europeans as he chases a hat-trick of gold medals that’s never been achieved before.
This former Cork senior and Doheny hurler has enjoyed a tremendous few weeks in Munster red, starting his first competitive game for Anthony Foley’s side in a PRO12 league win away against Zebre on January 30th, and he has help his position in the back line since then.
Subsequently, against the Ospreys, Glasgow Warriors, Benetton Treviso, Newport Gwent Dragons and the Cardiff Blues last Friday night (when he scored his first senior Munster try), the former Dohenys hurler (who turns 23 in May) has started and finished all these PRO12 games. Munster head coach Foley told The Southern Star a few weeks back that ‘Darren has certainly stepped up in the last few weeks and has taken his opportunities well.’
A late starter to rugby, he learned his trade in the Munster Academy, and he signed a two-year contract with the province last year, which moved him to development status for 2015/16 and onto a full contract for 2016/17. A former Ireland U20 international, Sweetnam is moving in the right direction, step by step, and he’s physically maturing as well.
There is widespread agreement – and not just colloquial favouritism – that Ballylickey’s Keith Cronin is one of the most talented drivers in Irish rallying.
Comparisons with the great Billy Coleman are a fitting tribute to the sometimes-reluctant sports star, who not alone equalled the Millstreet driver’s feat in winning the British Rally Championship in 2009 – 35 years after Coleman became the first Irishman to land the title – but went on to win the series on two other occasions (2010 and 2012).
This success paved the way for a foray in the WRC3 category on the World Rally Championship that saw him just miss out on a fully-funded drive that could have seen him contest a strong WRC programme in WRC2 – the second tier of the WRC.
Unfortunately, a subsequent decision to embark on what was essentially a self-funded drive in the category was ended dramatically by a pre-event roll before his opening round in Portugal.
Now, Cronin is embarking on a twinned ITC and BRC programme and he has taken maximum points in both the opening two rounds of the new look ITC – his BRC foray didn’t get off to the best of starts but he has the opportunity to rectify the matter as both championships dovetail on the Circuit of Ireland in a few weeks’ time.
Gary and Paul O’Donovan
The O’Donovan brothers from Lisheen are gearing up for a busy year as they plot their course for the Olympics later in the summer, having qualified to represent Ireland in the Irish men’s lightweight double in Rio.
Gary (23) and Paul (21) were paired together in late 2014 and only started full-time training last May – but they did enough at the world senior rowing championships in France last September to qualify for the Olympics.
Trained by Dominic Casey, the Skibbereen Rowing Club duo are combining their studies – Gary’s in his final year in CIT, Paul’s in third year in UCD – with their training at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra.
At last weekend’s national trials, Gary finished the lightweight single as the top senior (Paul didn’t race last weekend), which is a promising sign for the months ahead.
Gary and Paul head to Varese, Italy on April 1st to train for two weeks ahead of the first World Cup regatta on the same lake – their first international regatta since the 2015 world championships.
Then it’s back home for three weeks before they compete in the European Championships at Brandenburg, Germany. College exams follow before the second World Cup regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland at the end of May. In June they will race at the third and final World Cup regatta in Poznan, Poland.
At the start of July, the Skibb duo will move to Banyoles, Spain for their final training and preparations before flying to Brazil, as they move closer to realising a lifetime’s dream.
On November 5th, 2015, the Coppeen man became the 19th jump jockey to hit 1,000 winners over jumps after his success on Lamanver Alchemy at Warwick – another milestone for one of the best jockeys West Cork has ever produced. He’s considered, by some, as right up there alongside Norman Williamson of Bandon, which is hard to argue with.
In fact when he rode his 1,000th winner, he became only the third-ever Cork jockey to achieve the amazing landmark – Williamson and Davy Russell being the other two.
Just last Friday he rode his third Cheltenham winner as Unowhatimeanharry won the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, which follows on from wins aboard Rock On Ruby in the 2012 Champion Hurdle and in the County Hurdle on Silver Jaro in 2008.
He also has two wins in the King George, on Silviniaco Conti, to his name, as well as guiding Master Minded to an Amlin Chase triumph in 2010. Fehily (40) is regarded as a big-race rider, part of an elite band of top jockeys.
This season alone, he has ridden over 100 winners, and while Aidan Coleman (Innishannon) and Gavin Sheehan (Dunmanway) are two more West Cork jockeys making a name for themselves across the water, Fehily’s longevity and continued success mark him out as one of this region’s finest sporting exports.
Soccer, Enniskeane /Roscommon
Born in New York and raised in Roscommon, but in Enniskeane since 1985, the current Cork City manager is one of West Cork’s favourite sporting sons.
His first job here was in the Soundstore shop in Enniskeane at the time, but he went on to achieve great things as a striker with Cork City. He holds the record for more appearances (455), most starts (376), most substitute appearances (79), shares the goal record (129) with Pat Morley – his strike partner for most of his time with City – and scored the club’s first hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Sligo Rovers, shortly after joining in 1986.
In his playing days with City, he won a Premier Division title (1993), an FAI Cup in ’98 and three League Cup medals.
Now in his third season as City manager, he is, rightly, attributed as the key man in overseeing the club’s upturn in fortunes on the field, as they have finished runners-up in the league the past two seasons – and this year they’re tipped to give champions Dundalk a run for their money, having strenghtened the squad over the winter. A 1-0 win away against Dundalk last Friday night is the ideal early-season boost. There will also be a Europa League campaign later in the year.
Inducted into the Cork City FC Hall of Fame, his passion for the club – as a player first, then a supporter and now manager – is there for all to see. Caulfield signed a new two-year deal last October, as he pushes City towards a first Premier Division title since 2005.