|Rory McIlroy was as big a star as anyone in 2012
The 2012 calendar year for Irish sports fans was one filled with glorious moments of sheer delight as well as gutting moments of despair and disappointment. National pride took its hits and blows repeatedly, but some athletes kept fighting through the blows to deliver what fans' dreams were made of.
10. Underdogs Ulster Reach Heineken Cup Final.
Ireland's recent struggles as an international footballing powerhouse(!) have opened the doors to this other sport known as rugby. A sport at which the Irish international teams have recently dominated at different levels. The International team has had its ups and downs over the past few years, but there has been a level of consistency at the provincial level that has surpassed all expectations. Leinster have become the most feared club side in the world, but their counterparts in the North, Ulster, have timed their rise to prominence perfectly as Munster appear to slide out of relevance. Ulster shocked European Rugby this year when they marched their way into the 2012 Heineken Cup Final, only to be beaten by an unstoppable Leinster side. With youth on their side however, the future appears bright for this province.
9. Euro 2012.
There is no doubt that Ireland's record-breaking display at the Euro 2012 Football Championships was one of the most disappointing aspects of the 2012 sporting year. However, it shouldn't be forgotten that Ireland making the championships in the first place was a major achievement and while the team failed to flatter themselves, the fan-base only raised the international perception of the Irish people as a whole.
8. Notre Dame Visit Aviva Stadium.
On September 1st, an unfamiliar and diverse group of sports fans descended upon Dublin. Thousands of American Football fans came from all over the world to witness an event that would forever remain in their memories. The "hometown" Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team renewed their fierce rivalry with the Navy Football team at the Aviva the Stadium. While the game itself wasn't memorable, Notre Dame dominated Navy and racked up a huge score, it will go down as the beginning of a very memorable season for the college and all its fans. Notre Dame didn't enter the season as favorites for the BCS Championship, in fact they weren't close, but a surprise unbeaten season under head coach Brian Kelly has sent the team all the way to the grand final of the 2012 college football season.
7. Celtic's Miracle Victory Over Barcelona.
Although it took place on Scottish soil, was created by a Kenyan head paired with a Scottish foot, and will go down in history as one of the greatest moments in Scottish Club Football's history, Ireland's affinity with Celtics' victory over Barcelona is more than acceptable. The Glasgow based club, a minnow of European football, beat arguably the greatest club football side in the history of the game when a combination of Victor Wanyamma and 18-year-old Tony Watt goals allowed them to beat Barcelona 2-1 at home. It was only a group game, but it propelled the club into the next stage of the competition and made thousands upon thousands of Irish fans rejoice.
6. Donegal Win the All-Ireland Football Championship.
In September, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden both scored 1-04 to lead Jim McGuinness' Donegal to an unlikely second All-Ireland Football Championship title. The Ulster champions won their first championship 20 years previous and manager McGuinness had endured plenty of criticism for the way his team played in the previous season. Donegal beat Mayo in the final by 2-11 to 0-13.
5. Leinster Create a Dynasty.
After winning their first ever Heineken Cup in 2009, with a 19-16 victory over the Leicester Tigers, Leinster added their second Heineken Cup Victory in 2011, with a 33-22 win over the Northampton Saints, before winning their third title in four years against Ulster this year. Fittingly, Leinster's third title came in a more dominant fashion than any previous, as they beat Ulster by 42-14. That 28 point victory was the highest in the history of the competition, while their three wins make them the team with the second most victories ever behind Toulouse. Leinster have firmly established themselves as the best rugby club in Europe and potentially the world.
4. Ireland's Olympic Haul.
In one of the most memorable Olympics of recent history, Ireland came away with one Gold medal, one Silver medal and three Bronze medals. Of those five total medals, four came in the boxing ring and one came from Cian O'Connor in the equestrian field. Katie Taylor won Ireland's gold medal in Women's Lightweight Boxing, John Joe Nevin won Silver in Men's Bantamweight Boxing, Paddy Barnes (Men's Light Flyweight Boxing), Michael Conlan (Men's Flyweight Boxing) and O'Connor added the Bronze medals.
3. Rory McIlroy, the Best Golfer In the World.
At just 23 years of age, Rory McIlroy is already proving those people who believed he would be a superstar right. McIlroy will finish this year as the World No.1 for the first time in his career, by some margin too. Four tournament victories, including the USPGA which was his second major, has allowed McIlroy to finish the year with more than a four point lead over Luke Donald and Tiger Woods who are second and third in the world respectively.
McIlroy finished the 2011 year in third position, but being first in the world is only a part of his 2012 success. For the year, the man from County Down was the leading earner on the PGA Tour, PGA Player of the Year, PGA Tour Player of the Year, Vardon Trophy/Byron Nelson Award winner, European Tour Order of Merit winner and European Tour Golfer of the Year. McIlroy was also a key member of the winning Ryder Cup team.
2. Irish Athletes Dominate the Paralympics.
They may not have won the most medals, but for at least one day, the Irish Paralympic team took over London. Much like Mo Farrah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis had done for Great Britain in the main Olympics, three Irish athletes took over one of the days of the Paralympics with amazing displays. After Bethany Firth won Ireland's first medal, a gold in the Women's 100 meter backstroke, Darragh McDonald, Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop followed on the next day.
McDonald, Smyth and McKillop all won medals on September 1st. McDonald started things off with a gold medal in the Men's 400 meter freestyle. It only got better when the track meets started, as not only did Ireland win two more gold medals, but they set two world records also. Smyth's 10.46 second sprint in the Men's 100 meters broke his own world record, before McKilop set a new world record of 1.57.22 in the Men's 800 meters to follow up his victory in Beijing four years previous.
1. Katie Taylor Wins Olympic Gold.
Even before Katie Taylor won Olympic Gold in London, she had already made a huge contribution to the games. By participating in two exhibition bouts for the International Olympic Committee, Taylor played a major part in allowing women's boxing to become an Olympic sport. Having helped boxing start the beginning of a new legacy, Taylor maybe brought her own to a close.
Her career is by no means over, but the addition of her first gold medal could be the final piece to push a career of dominance to that of the greatest of any Irish sports person in history. Taylor's display brought the crowd of fans at the bout to a record level of noise, while international members of the media couldn't help but take notice.
I don't know jack about women's boxing, but I know a swing w precision and violence and Ireland's Katie Taylor can knock your face off...
— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) August 6, 2012
In short, Taylor became an Irish legend and encapsulated everything that Irish sports fans want to be proud of.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf