and Munster

Heineken Cup

Who will ever forget that Croke Park day last May when Red met Blue in the All-Ireland European Cup semifinal and Leinster rolled over Munster en route to a famous Heineken Cup win?

The history books will tell you that Leinster went on to beat the Leicester Tigers in another unforgettable match at Edinburgh in the European decider, but for many of their fans the sweetest win came in the semifinal.

The good news for fans of both teams is that they are still on track for the knock-out stages again this season. Champions Leinster have a huge task in their final pool game away to London Irish on Saturday, January 23, while Munster meet Northampton in a must win game in Limerick 10 days from now.

The Irish provinces could meet again this season, but they are both in with a real chance of making the Paris final on May 22. What an occasion it would be if they were both there!

Brian O’Driscoll
Six Nations Championship

The renowned Rugby World magazine has just elected the Ireland captain as the outstanding international rugby player of the last 10 years, and a deserved honor it is for the Leinster center.
The fact that O’Driscoll is the only Irish player on the team of the noughties tells you all you need to know about his place in world rugby standings.

Dricco has been the stand-out talent of so many Irish teams in recent years, but last season was probably his best ever in a green shirt at a time when many pundits questioned his value to Declan Kidney’s team.

O’Driscoll was at the heart of everything good about the Irish team as they worked their way to a deserved Grand Slam, Six Nations and Triple Crown treble.

They may never reach those heights again, but their defense of the Slam will be vital viewing over the next two months.

Ruby Walsh
Cheltenham National Hunt Festival

One man dominated the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, and he was as Irish as bacon and cabbage. It was all about Ruby, Ruby, Ruby at Cheltenham last March, from Ruby Tuesday all the way through to Ruby Friday as young Walsh reigned supreme on the Cotswolds.

Ruby Walsh will be the center of attention again when the Irish look to bash the Brits again this year, and don’t be surprised if he breaks even more records at the greatest National Hunt festival of them all.

Walsh could even break the seven wins record he set last spring, and smash Pat Taaffe’s record for overall wins at the Cheltenham festival into the bargain.

Rory McIlroy
The Masters at Augusta

The world is crying out for a new golf superstar, and this young man from Holywood in the County Down could be the answer to the sport’s search for a new Tiger Woods -- without the misdemeanors.

McIlroy is still just 20 years of age and already he’s the ninth ranked player in the world ratings, the youngest golfer ever to hit those heights.

With Woods away, McIlroy acknowledges there is a huge opportunity for the youngsters he has left behind to make hay in Tiger’s absence, and he is determined to make the most of this big chance.

The Ulsterman’s ambitions for the year are to win more tournaments, taste his first victory in America, feature on a winning Ryder Cup team in Wales and make a greater impact on the majors, starting with Augusta.

On current form you wouldn’t bet against him achieving all of those goals.

Henry Shefflin and Kilkenny
All-Ireland Hurling Championship

The “Drive for Five” they’re calling it on the GAA pages as the Cats from Kilkenny go in search of even more history this season, unprecedented history at that.

No team has ever won five McCarthy Cups in a row, but even when Brian Cody’s team took the famous trophy home last September the fans were talking up their chance in 2010.
Gimme Five was the catch phrase all across Kilkenny after the Croke Park win over Tipperary, and few will bet against the Cats doing it again this year.

Tipperary will have to meet a resurgent Cork in Munster and Galway will fancy their chances of a major upset in Leinster, but Kilkenny will again be the standard bearers for championship hurling in 2010.

Paul Galvin and Kerry
All-Ireland Football Championship

There are so many questions surrounding so many teams going into the 2010 Gaelic football season, not least those question marks hanging over All-Ireland champions Kerry, whose triumph last September was masterminded by the rejuvenated Paul Galvin.

Tadhg Kennelly’s return to Australia and Tommy Walsh’s defection to the paid ranks down under are just two of the issues Jack O’Connor will have to contend with as he looks to defend Sam.

Beaten All-Ireland finalists Cork, Connacht champions Mayo and the perennial Dubs are just three of the teams with a point to prove next summer, while Joe Kernan can only improve Galway.

Kildare will be the sleeping threat in Leinster, and don’t bet against Tyrone rising from the ashes of a disappointing season once again. They’re never down for long.

Shane Lowry
3 Irish Open Killarney

There was a funny twist at the AIB/Irish Golf Writers annual awards ceremony in a very cold Ballsbridge last Thursday night when Shane Lowry was named Irish Amateur of the Year.

Those of you who know your golf will know that Lowry is now one of our rising young professionals, and won a cool $280,000 in six months on the European Tour last year.

You will also know that Lowry was an amateur when he pulled off one of the greatest wins in the history of Irish sport, never mind golf, at the 3 Irish Open in Baltray last May.

Lowry survived the endless downpours and the nerves to dismiss England’s Robert Rock in a playoff for his national title after a roller coaster ride, physically and emotionally, from start to finish.

His defense of that title, as a pro this time, will be captivating on the August bank holiday weekend this year. The fact that the tournament is moving to the world class Killeen course in Killarney will just add to the excitement.

Lionel Messi/Schalk Burger
Aviva Stadium

Take a drive through Dublin’s Southside right now and you can’t help but be impressed by the new Aviva Stadium taking shape and dominating the skyline where Lansdowne Road once dwelt.

The 51,000 capacity venue will showcase the very best in Irish rugby and football when it opens for business with a representative rugby match featuring the four provinces in August, but the real action hits town a little later.

Soccer’s World Cup kingpins Argentina, complete with Diego Maradona in the dug-out and Lionel Messi on the field, will provide the first Aviva opposition for Giovanni Trapattoni’s team in August.

And rugby’s world champions South Africa will be on the menu for the new stadium’s first international rugby fixture at the start of November.

Both opponents are world class -- from the outside the new Aviva Stadium looks just the same. Can’t wait to get inside.

Katie Taylor
World Boxing Championships Barbados

The elegant young Taylor was named Boxer of the Year at the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s annual awards show in Dublin last Friday night, and that says so much about our world champion from Co. Wicklow.

The biggest event on the horizon for many as far as Katie is concerned is the 2012 Olympics in London, but far more important to the star herself and her trainer dad Pete are the forthcoming world championships in Bridgetown, Barbados. Taylor, a four time European champion, will look to win a third straight 60kg title.

Right now that’s more important than any gold medal in London, but it would take a brave man to bet against her doing the double.

Giovanni Trapattoni
European Championship qualifiers

Let’s face it, we may never get over the heartache of Paris and the act of treason perpetrated in the name of World Cup football by Thierry Henry and company, but, like Roy Keane said, we will have to get on with our lives.

In football terms that means looking forward to the European Championship draw in Poland on the first Sunday in February and the start of the Euro qualifiers in September.

Giovanni Trapattoni intends to be present in Warsaw when his team will be drawn as third seeds for the Euro games -- what odds another date with the French after our recent spat?

More importantly, he will be in the dug-out and the likes of Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Shay Given will be on the field when competitive football resumes for the Boys in Green nine months from now.

Then and only then can this Irish team turn their World Cup disappointment into European Championship hope. After Paris, that is the least we deserve!