Jessie Barr has tipped both Ciara Mageean and Brian Gregan to make the finals of their respective events at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade this weekend, with the RTÉ athletics analyst viewing Mageean as Ireland's best chance of a medal in the Serbian capital.
Gregan will be in the blocks for the 400m hurdles heats at 9.20am Irish time on Friday, while Mageean – a bronze medallist at last year’s event in Amsterdam – will contest the heats of the 1500m at just after 4pm.
“Ciara is an amazing athlete, there’s no doubt about that,” Barr told Game On listeners on RTÉ 2fm.
“She’s a real competitor.
“Put her in a race, and if she’s within touching distance, you can never write her off.
“She’s always going to be a threat in a race. But she is ranked 15th.
“That’s not even including people in the race like Laura Muir from the UK, who has actually not run any 1500m races this year.”
Barr added that the Portaferry athlete would need to summon up all her tenacity and rely on a little luck to secure a podium finish.
“Anything can happen in indoor races, so you can never count her out,” she said.
“She will battle through to the final.
“A medal is another huge step. Only three people can get a medal.
“Indoor running is very scrappy.
“If the race is run quite slowly, like it was in Amsterdam where she picked up a bronze medal, she could be in with a chance.”
Barr has also backed Gregan to advance from what appears to be a favourable heat, with a final berth well within his sights, saying: "He’s in a really, really strong position, definitely for a semi-final, and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t make the final based on his ranking.”
The 10-strong team is a blend of youth and experience, with exciting prospect Ciara Neville poised to make her debut at international level in the senior ranks.
Neville’s rapid progression saw her land the 60m national junior title in Athlone at the end of January. That performance equalled the national senior record and booked the 17-year-old from Limerick a spot in Belgrade.
“She’s just exploded on to the senior sprinting scene,” Barr enthused.
“For someone like her, this is an amazing opportunity just to see what that step up from the underage level to senior is.
“I was speaking to her only a couple of weeks ago and she was very much humming and hawing over whether she would even come. I’m really glad she has because it’s going to do nothing but benefit her.
“European Indoors is probably her first step in terms of senior championships.
“The next step up after this would be the European outdoors an then you’re looking at world level.
“I think this is going to be an amazing opportunity and a learning experience for everyone who’s going.”
While winning medals may be the ultimate barometer of success on the track, Barr was keen to keep a lid on expectation levels and she stressed the importance of contextualising each team member's performance.
“Every athlete, when they step on the track, they want to compete and they want to do their best,” she said.
“But I think every athlete is realistic about what stage they’re at.
“If they’re ranked 30th on the European rankings, they’re not looking at medals, they’re looking at finals.
“They’re looking to improve; use it as a really good opportunity to run personal bests.”
Watch the action from the European Indoor Championships on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player on Friday (6-7.20pm), Saturday (7.30-8.10pm) and Sunday (3.15-6.55pm).
Start times for Irish athletes (Irish time)
0845 Phil Healy and Sinead Denny 400m heats
0920 Brian Gregan 400m heats
1035 Zak Curran 800m heats
1220 Ben Reynolds 60m hurdles heats
1545 Ben Reynolds 60m hurdles semi-finals
1605 Ciara Mageean and Kerry O’Flaherty 1500m heats
1645 Phil Healy and Sinead Denny 400m semi-finals
1705 Brian Gregan 400m semi-finals
1725 Tomas Cotter 3000m heats
1815 John Travers 1500m men heats
1910 Ben Reynolds 60m hurdles men final
1845 Ciara Mageean 1500m final
1918 John Travers 1500m final
1555 Tomas Cotter 3,000m final