Ireland see off the world’s best in dazzling League of Nations win

  • 24 March 2024, 11:15

The Irish team of Shane Sweetnam, Daniel Coyle, team manager Michael Blake, Cian O’Connor and Darragh Kenny on the podium. Pic: Morgan Froment

The Underwriting Exchange Irish Show Jumping Team are back on top of the world after a scintillating display saw them win the Longines League of Nations second leg in Ocala, Florida overnight.

Ireland went one better than February’s Abu Dhabi opening-leg runner-up finish by seeing off the world’s best teams to sit on top of the podium at the prestigious five-star event.

The result means that Michael Blake’s team are clear at the top of the standings at the halfway point in the series and leaves them primed to qualify for October’s final in Barcelona following the opening two legs.

Blake chose Darragh Kenny, Daniel Coyle, Shane Sweetnam and Cian O’Connor to take on the world’s finest horse-and-rider combinations and the team flew out of the blocks in the opening session.

Offaly’s Kenny was first into the World Equestrian Centre arena on board Amsterdam 27, delivering a flawless round of jumping on the 14-year-old to settle any nerves.

Corkman Sweetnam and Otis Blue picked up where Kenny left off with a superb clear round on his inexperienced 10-year-old, showing his promise with a faultless display before Derry’s Coyle, who has been in outstanding form in recent months, did the same on his wonder mare Legacy.

With three clear rounds banked, Ireland had the luxury of keeping O’Connor and his mount Maurice fresh for round two, as Blake’s men sat on a zero score at the top of the table alongside hosts America and The Netherlands.

Sweetnam’s work for the night was done as, under the new format of the League of Nations, just three riders compete after the break, leaving no room for error. Blake selected Kenny, Coyle and O’Connor to deliver and they did so in style.

With mistakes starting to creep in among the competition, Kenny and Amsterdam 27 had just one pole down in round two, with Ireland only trailing the hosts on four faults before Coyle and Legacy produced their second clear round of the evening.

America’s second rider, Kent Farringdon, couldn’t keep the pressure on the Irish as he dropped two poles to add eight faults to their tally and leave O’Connor in the position he thrives upon – bringing it home for the gold medal.

On board Maurice, who himself has been in excellent form of late, O’Connor was foot perfect, leaving all poles standing and adding just one time fault to give Ireland a final finishing score of five faults to see off the surging Swiss team in second on eight, with America completing the podium on a final score of 12.

A delighted Blake said: “It’s fantastic – I’m so proud and honoured to work with these guys and they put in an incredible performance. This is up there as one of our best wins because what was in opposition tonight really was the world’s best.

“The other nine nations – who make up the top 10 in the world rankings – sent their best to Ocala and we saw them off in style. There is no room for error in the League of Nations and my lads showed that they thrive on that pressure.

“But it’s not just me and the four riders who produce a result like this. It is a huge operation in Horse Sport Ireland, as well as the grooms who look after these horses and the vets who are with us from Nations Cup to Nations Cup.

Cian O’Connor and Maurice after jumping the final fence to seal victory for Ireland at the Longines League of Nations in Ocala

“We have a wonderful group of owners, who continue to support our riders, and fantastic sponsors in The Underwriting Exchange – without them results like this can’t happen.

“Now we will focus on rounds three and four back in Europe and obviously the eye is always on Paris in the summer for a tilt at the Olympic Games.”

Anchorman O’Connor said: “I’m over the moon with this win. We’ve been working towards it for some months and I feel privileged to ride alongside these great guys. The team is building great momentum with this win following up our recent win in Wellington.

“They should stand is in good stead for further Nations Cups this summer and I want to thank all my owners, Sue and John Magnier, Pat Crean, Nikki Walker and Sarah Stoute. Without their support days like this wouldn’t be possible.”

Coyle added: “I’ve jumped lots of double clears with Legacy before but this is that bit more special. It feels like I’ve been getting Legacy ready for five years for a night like this and I couldn’t be happier with her.”

Sweetnam, who stepped in as a late replacement for the injured Bertram Allen, showed his class on the inexperienced Otis Blue, delivering a crucial clear round for the team.

He said: “He’s very talented and has only started performing at this level recently – Michael asked me if I thought he’d be ready and I told him he has the ability alright, it was just if he had the experience for it. But he showed he did and got that clear round to set things up for the lads.”

Kenny added: “It was great out there – the atmosphere was fantastic and it’s such a great arena to compete in – my horse jumped brilliantly. I’m still getting to know him but he’s jumping great at the moment.”

The result sees Ireland lead the standings with 190 points, with Abu Dhabi winners Germany in second on 160 and Switzerland in third with 150 points ahead of their home leg in St Gallen in June, with the Rotterdam leg to come and the final in Barcelona in October.

The Irish Show Jumping team is sponsored by The Underwriting Exchange

Charles Ancona – Official athlete clothing supplier to HSI’s Senior Olympic programmes

Bucas – official supplier to the Irish High Performance programme