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Cian O'Connor: "The famine is over!"

Monday, 04 September 2017

Team Ireland has had a 16-year gap from the podium as a team at major championships. Ireland’s London Olympic bronze medalist Cian O’Connor gives World of Showjumping his views and experiences, and concludes: The famine is over!

What a week it was: Team gold, individual bronze and three Irish riders in the Top 10 at the European Championships in Gothenburg.

There is a certain amount of luck in any sport and things need to go your way, but for many years one could say that we never just had that bit of luck and seemed to always miss out as a team when it mattered most.

As someone who has been involved with the senior team for the past 19 years it's an interesting exercise for me to look back and study why championship success eluded us as a team.

It would be disingenuous of me to not say that I was really disappointed with last year’s Rio selection and the lack of analysis by the then high performance committee as to why we failed to qualify a team for the Olympics at the Europeans in Aachen 2015, particularly when the horses available to the team then were on paper even better than some of the ones we just won with.

For me there are multiple reasons, but to lay the blame solely on the former manager would be a cheap shot. The sport has evolved and riders have choices with other shows and circuits offering considerably more prize money than the Nations Cups, making it essential that the National Governing Body (Horse Sport Ireland) can access sponsors who will be satisfied and encouraged by their connection to Team Ireland.

The manager’s job though is to manage. Lack of agreed targets and riders saying they want to go well at the championships but then also using the horses too much in the build-up and not knowing or seeking proper advice from the right people about how to peak – and ultimately not being focused on the main prize – were all I believe key components of our under-performance.

Riders and owners need to have confidence in the management structure to submit to the idea that the overall goal has to be respected, which means sacrifices by all.

Fast forward to the start of this year and James Kennedy, then acting CEO of Horse Sport Ireland, played a pivotal role in changing structures which I have no doubt led to last weekend’s success. For the very first time in my memory we had someone in charge who listened to the riders. We created an international riders’ group with elected representatives in each region globally, and Michael Blake was nominated as the riders’ representative – a conduit between the top riders and the national federation.

Heretofore it had felt as if the riders were the enemy and “ignore them at all costs” seemed to be the mantra. This kind of attitude within the national governing body previously stifled progress and made Robert Splaine's job harder too at times, as I don't believe he always felt that he had full support from within Horse Sport Ireland.

Kennedy listened and then understood that this needed to change and many of us were vocal that the key to this working prior to employing any chef was to put together and establish a high performance committee made up of people who actually new something about just that – HIGH PERFORMANCE!

The new showjumping high performance committee was set up and tasked with the aim of strategically planning the road to Tokyo 2020, and regardless who the chef would be there was now a support structure in place to bounce things off and to offer support by people who really knew the nuts and bolts of the game.

This move in my view has proved pivotal in last week’s success as that group of people Taylor Vard (Showjumping Ireland), Michael Blake (international riders’ rep and development chef) Gerry Mullins (chair of high performance) are on hand to advise and support Rodrigo Pessoa and keep everything on the right track.

To be fair Splaine never had this – mind you I'm not sure he would have welcomed it either – but that perhaps was his downfall, as to run anything successfully you need the best people around you and listening to people with qualified points of view and a common goal of winning is the only way success will follow.

Rodrigo Pessoa was the successful candidate and awarded the job as team manager by a seven-man interview panel last March. There was plenty of scepticism but one thing was clear, that change was needed. I would consider myself totally pro-Irish and passionate about the flag but I also thought that an outside perspective could bring new ideas and vision to the team.

One really obvious illustration of this was Rodrigo's view on the team that would line out for Dublin this year. He was adamant that he would field the best team possible but not in any way jeopardising the championship horses, as there was only a week in between the two shows.

Good Luck was the only horse who did both shows, mainly because we felt it would do him good as he hadn't jumped so much this summer with my own groin injury. As it turned out over the four rounds of the team jumping at both shows he didn't touch a pole. Some thought in Dublin that we were on the wrong track or it was silly not to bring the best team, and to be honest I myself again, being somewhat insular, would have probably agreed. But Pessoa had no doubt.

Shane Sweetnam and Chaqui Z were outstanding at Gothenburg, and Pessoa early on identified them as a key part of this group if managed correctly. The pair were double clear in Falsterbo Nations Cup in July and Rodrigo advised Shane that it was enough big jumping for that particular horse as he was experienced and would be minded until the championships –  that SINGLE decision was probably the difference between us winning gold and not.

On a personal level, I'm thrilled with my performance and for Good Luck to come away with two medals from the championship is fantastic as it reinforces my view all along that he is one of the best equine athletes in the world.

Over the past few years through work and developing our partnership he has really improved a lot. He always had an incredible jump, but was at times wild and unruly. With correct flat work, canter poles, gymnastic work and hours and hours of training he has developed into a horse who can do it all – go fast, jump big, leave out or add a stride – brilliant water jumper – he is simply the horse of a lifetime and I'm extremely grateful to his owner Frank Stronach for the trust he showed in me back in November 2014 when I saw the horse for the first time and proposed it to him for purchase.

We have the makings of a fantastic team to challenge at all the championships in this four-year cycle. Myself, Denis, Shane and Bertram will all analyse this season and while obviously enjoying our success we will also look at where we could be even better. Now that we not only have a gold medal under our belts, but were also the most successful nation at this championship, gives us confidence and builds momentum, so that we now believe we can be a team that is feared by the others. Personally I feel very priveliged to have been part of such a brilliant team, with a great group of guys and I feel this is only the beginning. 

We need to increase the pool of TOP riders with TOP horses and while we have some newer combinations coming through – which is always exciting – it’s imperative that the experienced riders try a little harder to mount themselves accordingly so that the team has options for WEG and Tokyo.

It's not enough anymore just to be a good jockey and wait for the horse to come to you. You have to be able to be more than that and create the all-round package of having the horse power, a system to work and develop your horses, the correct team around you and a strict plan that best allows winning performances when it matters most.

On behalf of the Irish riders in Gothenburg I would like to thank Rodrigo for his invaluable input this year and for him to come in and deal with our group – with many egos in the mix (this writer included!) – and pull the whole thing together and believe in us was pretty impressive. Hats off to you for delivering on your promise.

As Gerry Mullins might say "Enjoy it now lads, for one day – but then get focused on WEG!”

With that Jack Russell on Rodrigo's tail, the eye tends to stay firmly on the prize!


- Cian -

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