By Niall O'Flynn
Ireland’s showjumpers can be real medal contenders at the London Olympics - if they qualify at this week’s European Championships, according to team manager Robert Splaine.
The championships, which begin on Tuesday, 13 September in Madrid, represent the last chance for Ireland to qualify a team for the 2012 Olympic Games.
To make it to London, Ireland must finish in the top three of those countries not already qualified.
"We have a tough job ahead of us," said Splaine.
"There are still very strong teams not qualified and I can see a huge battle emerging for the three remaining places. But we have been very, very successful all year in the Superleague and Ireland is again ranked fourth in the world at the highest level.
Qualification for London all depends on our performance on the day in Madrid. If we get off to a good start, we have a good chance. And, if we qualify, we have a great chance of a medal in London next year.”
Splaine’s squad for the Europeans is a blend of youth and experience, and is headed by two men ranked in the world’s top riders - Denis Lynch, on Lantinus, and Billy Twomey, riding Tinka's Serenade.
Lynch, now ranked six in the world, is the highest-ranked Irish rider, and the Tipperary man, who has won Grands Prix at Doha, La Baule, Rome, Hamburg and Dresden, has the pedigree to lead Ireland’s challenge.
Much is also expected of Cork-born Twomey, the world number 11, who has won seven major Grands Prix, including the World Cup in Oviedo, Spain.
The surprise package of the team is the sensational young rider, Nicola FitzGibbon, who turns just 24 this week.
Riding Puissance, she wowed the crowd at this year’s RDS, jumping a clear round in the Nations' Cup to help Ireland finish second.
Also on the five-strong squad are two overseas-based combinations - Shane Sweetnam (AmarettoDarco) and Niall Talbot (Nicos De La Cense).
From this squad, Splaine will select a final team of four to compete in the three rounds of the championships.
Missing from the team, however, are two of the best-known Irish riders – Cian O’Connor and Jessica Kürten.
"For a championships, I could have up to 12 riders on a long list," said Splaine.
"Seven or eight would have a realistic chance of getting to a major championships, the highest level, the closest you get to an Olympics.
"What people must realise is, that when you talk about ‘names’, you must speak about a horse as well. A rider cannot go to a championships on his own. He has to ride a great horse. And if he does not have that horse at that particular time – even though he might be one of the greatest riders in the world – then he does not get selected.”
The manager added: "Shane Sweetnam has been solid all year and his last team performance gave us a double clear in the Aga Khan in Dublin.
"Nicola has been solid on all of the few occasions she has lined out for us and Niall has been progressing the right way all year and was good at Rotterdam recently in both the Nations' Cup and the Grand Prix."
Nicola FitzGibbon said that she is "probably younger than most of the competitors" in Madrid, but the Dun Laoghaire born rider says she’s "riding the horse of a lifetime right now", and believes that she’s ready for the challenge.
She added: "A lot of the riders this year have had bad luck with their horses. There are a lot of injuries. There are rider injuries as well. Also, a lot of horses have been sold – that’s a big problem.
"In the end, Robert Splaine would not have had a huge group to choose from. But the ones that he did have to choose from are really strong combinations.
"I think there is a really good team going to Madrid, and we will do really well. Bringing home a European medal would be a bonus, but our main job is to qualify for London."
To do that, the Irish must qualify for the Team Final on Friday, 16 September – and then finish in the top three of the nations not already qualified for the Olympics. The nations already qualified are Britain (hosts), Germany, Belgium and France.
Any Irish rider in the Top 25 after that will also qualify for the Individual Final, to be held on Sunday, 18 September.
Should we fail to qualify as a team, Ireland will not qualify any individuals for the Olympics at Madrid. Individual Olympic qualification will depend on a rider's rankings based on the best 30 results between 1 January 2011 and 1 March 2012.
We are allowed to qualify a maximum of two individuals for the Olympics, should we not qualify as a team at Madrid.
A European Showjumping Championships special highlights programme on RTE2 on Monday, 19 September at 8pm.