This has the feel of the biggest night in Irish rowing history … so far.
Five Ireland boats compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Irish time. Four are still in medal contention; the Ireland women’s four race in the A Final.
The four is new, ambitious – and bound for a medal.
One image of this crew jumps out. They are racing Australia in the closing stages of the heat in Tokyo. The strokes are full and precise, the effort is full on, the concentration total. They have already secured the second spot which takes them to this A Final, but that is not enough: the Ireland crew flies to the line and through it. They just fail to pass Australia, but they outpace them – just – over the final quarter.
This crew of Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and stroke Emily Hegarty (above) worked up brilliant ergometer scores through the long, enforced break and beyond it. In each race they seem determined to release all that power, turn all that effort into speed on the water.
At the European Championships, they took silver. They sent their best boat to Tokyo even before competing in the Olympic qualifier. Two races in the qualifier, two wins.
Of course, Australia won the 2k battle four days ago, by .23 of a second. This established them in this restored event as rightful favourites. The Netherlands, who took gold in the European Championships ahead of Ireland, won the other heat. At 1.50 (Irish time) these two crews line out in lanes three and four. They will expect to go hammer and tongs against the other for the win.
Most likely one of them will win gold. But I fancy Ireland to take silver.
Firstly, Ireland have the speed. The heat which featured Australia and Ireland was almost five seconds faster than the heat just before, where the Netherlands held off a challenge by China.
This does not mean that the Netherlands necessarily slots in behind Ireland. But if it comes to a three- or four-boat drive for the line, Ireland know they have every chance of taking out either the Netherlands or Australia.
And Ireland have shown they love to race.
Maybe Ireland can beat them all … but let’s not be greedy in our dreams!
Later in the night (3.30 am, Irish time) comes the appearance of everyone’s favourite for gold, Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan in the lightweight men’s double semi-final. The draw has been good here. Stefano Oppo and Pietro Ruta of Italy generally give Ireland a good race, but they do not beat them. The battle in the other semi (3.10), between Germany and Norway, should give a good indication of who will provide the big test come Thursday’s A Final.
The performance of the women’s lightweight double has been one of the stories of the Games for Ireland. Margaret Cremen and Aoife Casey, both 22, can look confidently towards Paris 2024, having landed a place in an Olympic semi-final (3.40). They mastered the art of taking third; this placing saw them through the Olympic Qualifier and the repechage in Tokyo, but it is surely too much to ask that they do it again and reach the A Final.
The Netherlands (holders of the world’s best time, set last month) and France are sound bets to take the top two spots, with Switzerland, Britain and Ireland not too far behind. Could a Dominic Casey crew do it again … Stranger Things have happened (and there’s a new season coming up)!
The last crew out for Ireland are the women’s pair of Aileen Crowley and Monika Dukarska (4.20). The positive in this semi is that New Zealand’s Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler are not there. But Australia, Canada, Denmark, Greece and Britain are. All the hype around Helen Glover may have been a mixed blessing for the British competitor, but should this crew not make it, it does not necessarily usher Ireland through. To land an A Final place would almost certainly demand a new level of performance by Crowley and Dukarska.
The Ireland men’s double have had a really bad regatta and find themselves in the B Final (0.20 Irish time). The reasons will emerge in time. For the sake of the two men, Ronan Byrne and Philip Doyle, let’s hope they can bow out with a good placing.
Wednesday’s Programme for Irish Crews (times Irish)
0.20 – B Final, Men’s Double
1.50 – A FINAL, Women’s Four
3.30 – Semi-Final, Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls
3.40 – Semi-Final, Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls
4.20 – Semi-Final, Women’s Pair