| 2.2°C Dublin

muddy treat in store for stars

By a slip of the keyboard, Athletics Ireland called Sunday's National Intercounty Cross-Country Championships the 'National Championships'. They aren't yet, although there is little doubt that the cross-country season will look radically different next season, when the club and county races are likely to be combined on one date.

For the moment, next Sunday's race at Dundalk IT, the first to be sponsored by GloHealth, is the big one, with selection for the European Championships at stake. Favourite to win is DSD's Brendan O'Neill, the form athlete of the moment.

He beat Mark Christie of Mullingar at the Autumn Open Cross-Country in the Phoenix Park and followed that up with an impressive victory in the Dublin Championships at Santry, beating John Travers of Donore and current national champion Mick Clohisey of Raheny, both of them running on Sunday.

Others likely to be in the mix include the much-improved Kevin Maunsell of Clonmel and Tullamore's Liam Brady, who both impressed at the Autumn Cross-Country, along with Derry's Conor Bradley, winner of a tough Donegal championships.

In the women's race, Fionnuala Britton will certainly start as favourite. Women showing good form at the moment include the Dublin champion Ciara Durkan of Skerries, Cork champion Michelle Finn, who was second behind Britton at the Autumn Cross-Country, and DSD's reliable Sarah Mulligan.

There's no sign this season so far of Clonliffe's Sarah McCormack, the current national champion. Then there's Ciara Mageean (pictured) of UCD who broke Britton's record for the three-mile leg at the Irish Universities Road Relays last Saturday.

Under 23 runners will run the senior races, with the top three getting automatic selection. The same goes for the junior races, which could throw up a surprise or two. Pierce Murchan of Celtic DCH leads a strong Dublin men's squad, which includes DSD mountain running international Cillian Mooney. In the women's race, Hope Saunders of Clonliffe will aim to repeat her sensational Dublin Championships victory.

Whether US-based athletes such as Raheny's Kevin Dooney and Kevin Batt of DSD will be selected for the Europeans is open to question. Britton, for one, argues that bringing home athletes who are tired after a tough NCAA season has never proved its worth.

Judging from last spring when the Dundalk course was slippery and wet, the athletes face a mud-fest, broken up by a few steep hills.

The hundreds competing in the juvenile even ages championships, which will open the day's running at 11.30am, will churn it up even more.