Review of Northern Ireland's 2012 sporting year

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

The world's number one golfer, the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, Olympic and Paralympic medal winners, a table-topping rugby team, Donegal's All-Ireland winners and the best ice hockey side in Britain provided some of the many memorable sporting moments for Northern Ireland in 2012.

But local sport was also touched by tragedy, with the sudden loss of Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence and former Northern Ireland skipper Alan McDonald.

While Northern Ireland missed out on gold at the Olympics, there was no shortage of thrilling action with our competitors bringing home a healthy medal haul.

In rowing, the Chambers brothers, Richard and Peter, celebrated silver as part of Great Britain's lightweight four, while fellow Coleraine oarsman Alan Campbell was an emotional wreck as he celebrated a well-deserved bronze after an exciting single sculls final.

Belfast boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan clinched bronze medals as well but, from an Irish perspective, the star turn was 26-year-old Katie Taylor who beat Russian opponent Sofya Ochigava 10-8 to take gold back to her home fans in Bray, County Wicklow.

Michael Conlan
Boxer Michael Conlan won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics

In the Paralympics, the local headlines were dominated by runners Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop.

Smyth, who narrowly missed out on qualification for the Olympics, retained his two sprint titles and McKillop took double gold as well in his 800 and 1500 metres categories.

Bethany Firth from Seaforde won gold in swimming, Portaferry cyclist James Brown took bronze with partner Damien Shaw in the tandem road trial and Eilish Byrne from Armagh also got bronze in the equestrian dressage.

Golfing superstar McIlroy did not have much joy in the first three majors of the year - tied 40th at the Masters, a missed cut in his US Open title defence and a share of 60th place at the Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

But it all came right for the Holywood man as he won his second major with a runaway triumph at the US PGA and ended the year as world number one, topping the European and United States money lists.

McIlroy won by eight shots in the US PGA at Kiawah Island in August to secure his second career major - in 2011 he had secured the US Open by a similarly massive margin.

Graeme McDowell came close to landing his second major but lost out by just one shot to Webb Simpson in the US Open in San Francisco.

However, the Portrush man ended the year celebrating his second World Challenge title at California's Sherwood Country Club.

Both McIlroy and McDowell were part of the European team which secured a thrilling win over the United States of America at the Ryder Cup.

In June, sellout crowds flocked in their thousands to Royal Portrush to see the Irish Open, which was being staged in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1953.

McIlroy, McDowell and Darren Clarke were the main attractions but Welshman Jamie Donaldson upstaged the illustrious major-winning trio by taking first prize.

Meanwhile Alan Dunbar, from McDowell's home club of Rathmore, suggested he could be a star of the future by winning the British Amateur championship at Royal Troon.

Rory Best and Brian McLaughlin
Rory Best and Brian McLaughlin celebrate after Ulster beat Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-final

In rugby, Ulster finished the 2011/12 season by losing to Leinster in the final of the Heineken Cup in what was Brian McLaughlin's last match as coach.

This season, under new coach Mark Ancsombe, they sit on top of their Heineken Cup pool and the Pro12 standings.

But 2012 will be remembered as the year Ulster and Irish rugby lost rising star Nevin Spence.

The talented and likeable 22-year-old centre died alongside his brother Graham and father Noel in an incident at the family's farm near Hillsborough in September.

Thousands of rugby fans attended an emotional memorial service for the Spences at Ulster's Ravenhill ground.

The Ireland rugby team endured a largely disappointing 2012 although the year did end on an optimistic note with a seven-try 46-24 win over Argentina in Dublin.

However, any hopes of a repeat of the 2009 Grand Slam season had evaporated on the opening weekend of the Six Nations season in February as Wales snatched a 23-21 win at the Aviva Stadium.

A routine home win over Italy was then followed by a frustrating 17-17 draw in Paris as the Irish wasted a glorious chance for a rare away win over the French.

Declan Kidney's side comfortably accounted for Scotland but the Six Nations campaign ended on a hugely disappointing note as England's scrum dominance led to a chastening 30-9 defeat at Twickenham.

On the summer tour of New Zealand, the Irish were seconds away from claiming a 19-19 draw in the Second Test against the world champions before Dan Carter's injury-time drop goal but by the tour ended with an embarrassing 60-0 humiliation rampant All Blacks.

Northern Ireland football suffered a sad loss when former Northern Ireland and Queens Park Rangers captain Alan McDonald died suddenly, aged 48, while playing in a golf day in June.

McDonald won 52 international caps, scoring three goals, and went on to manage Glentoran as they won the Irish League championship in 2009.

In September Fermanagh GAA player Brian Og Maguire died in an industrial accident and former Kerry player and manager Páidí Ó Sé passed away suddenly at the age of 57 in December.

It was an unforgettable year for Donegal's Gaelic footballers as they retained their Ulster crown before going on to win the coveted All-Ireland Championship for only the second time in their history, beating Mayo 2-11 to 0-13 in the Croke Park showpiece.

Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness celebrates after leading Donegal to an All-Ireland title

Manager Jim McGuinness won many plaudits for his tactical expertise and man-management skills and was subsequently appointed to a part-time role working with young players at Scottish Premier League champions Celtic.

At club level, Crossmaglen and Loughgiel made it an Ulster double by claiming All-Ireland titles in football and hurling respectively.

In football, Northern Ireland started 2012 with a new manager in Michael O'Neill but have yet to win a match under the new boss, while Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni came under pressure after a disappointing showing in the Euro 2012 finals.

The highlight of the year for Northern Ireland fans was a deserved 1-1 draw with Portugal in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Porto in October.

Domestically, Linfield won another league and cup double while Crusaders lifted the League Cup and the All-Ireland Setanta Cup.

Northern Ireland-born Brendan Rodgers took over as manager of Liverpool in June and Manchester United played an Irish League Select in a testimonial match for Harry Gregg at Windsor Park.

In motorcycling, Jonathan Rea and Eugene Laverty took wins in the World Superbike Championship, but were unable to sustain a strong challenge for the title.

Keith Farmer was crowned British Superstock 1000 champion , while Alastair Seeley stole the show at the North West 200 with three victories and three second places.

Michael Dunlop brought his tally of Isle of Man TT wins to three with a success in the Supersport class, and followed that up with a double at the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod and August.

Ryan Farquhar again dominated the national road racing scene, but called time on his career after the death of his uncle, Trevor Ferguson, at the Manx Grand Prix.

The Belfast Giants were crowned Elite League champions in 2012 as ice hockey continued to attract healthy attendances at the Odyssey Arena.

Boxer Carl Frampton's star continued to rise and the north Belfast super bantamweight hopes to close in on a world title shot in 2013 but Brian Magee's stint as WBA super-middleweight champion proved a short one as he was stopped in three rounds by Mikkel Kessler in early December.

Ireland's cricketers began the year by safely qualifying progressing from the World Twenty20 qualifier in Dubai but the awful summer weather meant a frustrating finish to the season for Phil Simmons' squad.

The big set-piece occasion of the summer, the one-day international against Australia at Stormont on 23 June, was rained off after only 10.4 overs of play.

The rain even followed the Irish to Sri Lanka in September as their decisive clash with the West Indies had to be abandoned which meant for an early exit from the World Twenty20 after their opening defeat by Australia.

It was also a year of disappointment for Ireland's hockey squad as the men and women both fell at the final hurdle as they chased Olympic qualification.

The Irish men endured particular heartbreak as they suffered a final-second defeat by Korea in a game where they winners would have secured a place in London.

The women were also one win away from Olympic qualification but were well beaten by hosts Belgium in the decisive match.

Financial woes later almost forced the Irish men's withdrawal from the Champions Challenge event in Argentina before a public fundraising campaign enabled the squad to make the trip.

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