Ray Moylette and Joe Ward have guaranteed at least two bronze medals in the European Boxing Championships in Ankara, Turkey. Both men contest the semi-finals tomorrow.
Moylette (St Anne's) will meet Hajiliyev Heybatulla (Azerbaijan) at 64kg and Joe Ward (81kg) faces Hungary's Imre Szello.
At the 2010 European Championships Ireland finished second, behind Russia, in the medals table, with one gold (Paddy Barnes), one silver (Darren O'Neill) and three bronze (Kenny Egan, Tyrone McCullagh and Eric Donovan). But with 252 boxers from 39 nations competing in Turkey ahead of the qualifiers for next year's London Olympics, nobody said this was going to be an easy tournament.
Moylette got Ireland's campaign off to a flying start when he won his preliminary round last Friday. The 2008 AIBA Youth Champion stopped his Israeli opponent in the second round.
Yesterday the light-welterweight from Westport was trailing 10-9 going into the last round against Russia's Maksim Ignatiev but a blistering final round saw him edge out the Russian 14-13.
The sensation of the tournament has been Ward (Moate). Currently Irish National Youths champion, Ward decided to also contest at Senior level and caused a major upset by defeating Ireland's Olympic silver medalist Egan in February. Now, in what is his eighth competitive bout at senior level, Ward (18) has earned himself a bronze medal.
With six boxers still in contention, Ireland went into the quarter-finals behind Russia (9) and Turkey (7). But Michael Conlon, John Joe Nevin, Willie McLaughlin and team captain O'Neill came unstuck.
Before they left for Turkey, the Ireland squad was informed by the IABA that they'd have to compete in a box-offs competition at the National Stadium in August to ensure their place on the national team that will go to the World Championships in September. This will be the tournament that guarantees Olympic qualification.
The bronze medals earned by Moylette and Ward, with a chance of turning those into silver or gold, is likely to take the spotlight off the question of the Association's decision to announce the box-offs when the boxers were focusing on the European Championships. On the face of it, the announcement doesn't seem like a decision in keeping with the High Performance ethic of the operation that's been proving so successful for the IABA.
On the eve of the Irish team's departure for Turkey, diplomatic captain O'Neill said his focus was on bringing home a medal for Ireland. "I'm concentrating on the Europeans," he said. "The box-offs are a distraction that you don't need. It's all about performance."
Irish Olympian Nevin (21) was more outspoken. "We'll think about the box-offs after the European Championships," he told me.
"Speaking for myself, I haven't been beaten here since the Beijing Olympics. They didn't beat me this year and they haven't been able to beat me for the last four years so why should I have to box-off?
"I've proved I'm the best in my weight for the last four years. But anyone can go in and lose on the day. Where's my box-off then if my Olympic spot is gone? Where's my chance of a box-off?"
Moylette and Ward both compete in the semi-finals tomorrow. The Championship finals will be staged on Friday.