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O'Neill knows ropes

THE National Senior middleweight tournament of 2008 will live long in the memory.

Among those in the division were Eamonn O'Kane, now an unbeaten professional, and David Joyce. The final that year was known as the Battle of the Darrens.

And a cracking bout it was, with Darren O'Neill and Darren Sutherland standing toe-to-toe. By then, as the two best in their division, the duo's sporting rivalry had lit up the Irish amateur scene.

Sutherland won that night and put himself in line for qualification for the Olympic Games in Beijing. As well as having a generous heart, Dazzler, as Sutherland was called, had a touch of showbiz flair and timing about him.

Before he left the ring, and probably aware that within a year he'd be gone from the amateur ranks, he advised the stadium crowd that O'Neill was "the future".

Sutherland's prediction came through. Ever-improving, O'Neill has reigned supreme since. In London, he'll be Ireland's hope in the division that saw Sutherland win bronze in 2008 and Andy Lee represent Ireland in Athens four years earlier.

National champion for four years in a row, it's fitting that Kilkenny man O'Neill is captain of the Irish team, the position previously held by Kenny Egan.

A teacher in Donaghmede, he's taken six months leave to concentrate on giving his best in an Irish vest.

"The schedule we've had this year had been phenomenal," he explains. "I could have managed getting by at school while in training for the National Championships. But after that we had a 12-day training camp at the Curragh.

"Then we were off to Germany and then the Ukraine for three weeks so I felt that for the pupils and myself, as well, and for the school, it would be unfair for me to be in and out. It was too much to ask. In a few years time you don't want to be looking back with regret."

It's been a much busier 12 months than he acknowledges. As Irish champion last year, in September, O'Neill became the first Irish boxer to qualify for London at the World Championships in Baku in Azerbaijan.

But, as he says himself, "boxing is very unpredictable". One punch or one momentary lapse of concentration can change everything. Competition has been fierce. And so the Irish team that's heading for London is not exactly as most pundits would have anticipated.

"It's strange," says Darren. "If I look back to the National Championships of 2011, that was to be the team. The winners were to be the team going to the Olympic qualifiers.

"You couldn't predict it. Friends wanted to put bets on in the senior finals and they were asking me who'd win. But I just hadn't a clue.

"There were three or four boxers in each division. It's down to performance on the day. That goes to show the strength of Irish boxing. We've come on in leaps and bounds. If you go back to the start of the High Performance programme, we had maybe three or four boxers who could go away.

"I remember when I went to the European Championships in 2006, there were four of us. You could send two or three full teams now and still have boxers in each weight division.

"It goes to show the work that's put in. From the High Performance level right back down to club levels. And, we should remember, that's where we all came from."

Currently ranked seventh middleweight in the world by the AIBA, Darren will go to London knowing that, given a half-decent draw, he's good enough to be in the medals shake-up. He watched the Beijing finals with weary resignation.

"He looked at Egan's medal ceremony knowing that he'd beaten the other three boxers on the podium, including the gold medal winner Zang Xiaoping.

"But boxing is a funny game," he notes. "If you look at them, where are they now? Kenneth Egan is still around. He's a silver medalist and he can't win an Irish championships at the minute.

"I'm not going to take anything for granted. I just want to be prepared well. In my weight division, there was a Europeans 2011 and Europeans 2010, there were eight different medalists.

"Nobody could repeat a medal. Out of the eight medalists, only two qualified for the Olympics out of nine Europeans.

"It just goes to show how little there is between the athletes in my weight division. So you need a little bit of luck. All I can do is concentrate on my preparation. And make sure that I'm in the best possible position when the time comes to give it a pop."

O'Neill also knows that he's got some of the most astute coaches in amateur boxing in the Irish camp. "We have Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia who are second to none in the world, never mind Ireland," he says.

"There are 27 other (middleweight) boxers but I'm not going to look at them at all. There's no point. When the draw comes, Billy and Zaur will analyse them. They'll tell me things about them but everything is going to be working around my strengths. If I box the best I can, it's going to take a hell of a boxer to beat me."

While boxing is an individual sport, Darren is also drawing strength from knowing he's on the same squad as Katie Taylor.

"Katie Taylor is the greatest Irish athlete we have ever had," he states. "Ever. Her results speak for themselves. She is five times European champion. Four times World champion. Pound for pound the best in the world. And she's now an Olympian to add to that.

"Please God, things will go well for her and she'll get to achieve her dream. She's definitely undervalued. Only in the last few months, with her winning another world title and becoming an Olympian, she's starting to be recognised. And Pete (Katie's father) is a phenomenal coach.

"He's been away with us as well. He boxed himself. He put in so much effort and made so many sacrifices as a club coach alone. Without all that extra sacrifice that he's put in for Katie and Adam Nolan. He's also undervalued.

"As are most coaches around the country who are putting in hours and hours of time free for youths all around the country."

It might be unfair to tease Darren so close to the Olympics. But what the hell. All you have to say is: "It's a pity you're not in the Subway commercials."

"An English boxer (Anthony Ogogo) on an Irish TV station? I'm going to complain," laughs Darren. "They even have a poster of him up in the Subway in Kilkenny. Electric Ireland got behind Michael Conlon and I see him plastered all over bus-stops.

"I have a small TV ad. We're getting a small bit of exposure. Katie's leading the way and rightly so. It would be great if we could get some more backing for the athletes."

"We get our 15 minutes of fame every now and again when we come home with a haul of medals," he adds.

"Like when the Olympics come around the spotlight is put on us. It's probably a bit unfair with things like Kenny (Egan) the last time, because we're unused to it. It can be hard to adapt to."

As industrious as ever, the Irish boxers are likely to be better prepared for every eventuality this year.