Brilliant Britton wins women’s Euro cross-county senior title

[caption id="attachment_68403" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Ireland's Fionnuala Britton in green during the early stages of her European Cross Country Championship winning run. "]


IT’S not too often that the Munster and Leinster rugby teams find themselves upstaged by a diminutive Wicklow women.

But that’s what 27-year-old Fionnuala Britton did as she produced a quite sensational performance to win the senior European cross-country title in Veloenje, Svovenia on Sunday. She became only the second Irish competitor to win the event, following in the footsteps of Catherina McKiernan 17 years ago

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After finishing fourth in the event last year, most observers anticipated another good run from Britton but no one could have predicted that she would win in such a convincing fashion. She left nothing to chance establishing an early lead in the 8,000 metre race.

From then on it was a case of catch me if you can. By 3,000 meters she was in a leading group of just three along with Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix and Italy’s Nadia Ejjafini.

But no one could stay with the relentless pace set by the Wicklow woman. Felix, last year’s bronze medalist, fell back, as did Turkish runner Binnaz Uslu, the silver medalist in last year’s event.

Britton simply wasn’t going to be denied this time around. The only possible concern was at the 5,500 meters mark when Britain’s Gemma Steel looked like managing a challenge but the Irish competitor found another gear to finish an impressive seven seconds clear of the field.

Felix, who ran the New York Marathon last month, eventually got back to take second place ahead of Steel in third. But there were no excuses, such was Britton’s complete domination of a top class field.

Having finished four last year, the only thing on her mind was the gold medal. “That’s right. Last year I would have been happy to win any medal but this year I only wanted one.” she admitted.

“All I wanted was to be on the podium with the gold medal and to hear the national anthem. From last year I knew I had to have a gap that people wouldn’t be able to come through on.

“The longer I was out in front the more I was determined I was. I just wasn’t going to let anyone by me. But only with about 500 metres to go did I think I definitely had it.

“All around the last lap I convinced myself that no one was going to take the gold medal from me. I made up my mind that I was not going to have any regrets.

“ I just wanted to run the race in a way that would suit me and give me the best chance of winning. This is what I wanted, the gold medal is what everyone wants.”

Coach Chris Jones clearly deserves quite a bit credit for helping to devise a winning race plan. Britton, a recent masters graduate in sports medicine at DCU (Dublin City University), only switched to Jones 18 months ago.

“We had a plan and she executed it to the inch” said Jones. “She maintained her concentration throughout and never once did she look behind her and see where the others might be.

“She was devastated last year by narrowly missing out on a medal and was absolutely determined to make up for it.”

Ireland’s Joe Sweeney also produced a marvellous effort in the men’s event, finishing fifth. Normally this would have been enough for him to grab the headlines but not on this occasion.

Not that it bothered Sweeney. He said: “Listen, this was Fionnuala’s weekend. It will always be remembered for that and I’m delighted for her.”

The comments said a lot for Sweeney, considering he had finished just two seconds off a medal. The Irishman was always in the leading group as Belgium’s Atelawa Yeshe Bekele, formerly from Ethiopia, went on to take the gold medal.

“I suppose I’m slightly disappointed.” admitted Sweeney. “I just couldn’t get up there for the medal but hopefully I can follow Fionnula’s example and use this experience for an even better performance next year.”

Leinster, Munster

both win away

LEINSTER and Munster have put themselves in a great position to make the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup with impressive away victories over the weekend.

Munster got things going, coming from behind on Saturday to beat Llanelli Scarlets 17-14 at Parc y Scarlets. Similiarly, Leinster found themselves having to chase the game at the Recreation Ground on Sunday before defeating Bath 18-13.

Effectively, those results mean that the two leading Irish provinces are very much in pole position at the top of their pools. Munster are now two points clear of the Scarlets, while Leinster have three points to spare over their surprise nearest challengers Glasgow.

Should Munster and Leinster win the return fixtures at home against the Scarlets and Bath this coming weekend, it would be hard to see either one failing to make the last eight. Ulster too have keep themselves in the running in their pool with a bonus point 31-10 Ravenhill victory over Italian side Aironi.

Sadly though Connacht’s problems continue as they went down 14-10 to Gloucester at the Sportsgound. Once again, it was a case of missed opportunities for a Connacht team which lies at the bottom of what is admittedly a very tough pool.

No such problems for Munster or defending champions Leinster. Munster, in particular, had reason to expect a really tough encounter when they faced a Scarlets team containing some key members of the Welsh line-up.

And the Munster supporters must have been worried when the Scarlets established an early 8-0 lead with a try from flanker Aaron Shingler and penalty by Rhys Priestland. But Munster weren’t about to panic.

They responded with a penalty from Ronan O’Gara and a sensational try from flanker Niall Ronan after some outstanding work by full-back Denis Hurley. Another penalty from O’Gara, who was making his 100th Heineken Cup appearance for Munster, meant that the Irish province were 11-8 in front at the interval.

While there was never much in it in the second half, Munster simply weren’t going to let go of their lead. Two further penalties from O’Gara did the trick as they finished deserved 17-14 winners.

That said, they appreciate the the Scarlets will represent dangerous opposition at Thomond Park. Skipper Paul O’Connell, having produced another majestic performance in the second-row, commented: “This was a hell of a win for us, but we are aware that it is only half-time.

“I know, from our point of view, that there is nothing like a loss to focus the mind, so I’d imagine that next week is going to be an incredibly tough game. As for today, I thought the pack was fantastic, as was Lifeimi Mafi in the centre and Ronan (O’Gara) just continues to deliver at out-half .”

So does Johnny Sexton for Leinster. Despite missing his opening penalty against Bath, Sexton refused to be flustered and ended up by contributing all of Leinster’s 18 points with six penalties.

The only disappointment for the reigning champions that they did not score any tries. They could, and should, have had at least two.

In the first half full-back Rob Kearney burst clear only to ignore Isa Nacewa on his outside. Even worse, Sean O’Brien ignored a three man overlap in the second half before being stopped short of the line.

To be fair, flanker O’Brien was again outstanding for Leinster as they fought back from a 6-0 deficit. Their problem in the first half was that they simply weren’t getting enough possession.

However, once Sexton narrowed the gap to 6-3 just before the interval, they always look the more likely winners. Bath did contribute the game’s only try through their huge England wing Matt Banahan but Leinster, with Sexton adding five further penalties, finished well deserved winners.

Even so, coach Joe Schmidt will be looking a for a significant improvement in terms of their finishing in the return leg at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night. “We want to be a lot more accurate.” stressed Schmidt.

“We want to be aware of what everyone else is doing to make sure that we link up and finish opportunities. The last thing you want is for us to butcher them as we did today.”

Ulster, thankfully, didn’t waste their try scoring oppornities against admittedly poor Aironi opposition to pick up a crucial bonus point. They scored five tries in all through Stephen Ferris, Adam D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson.

Yet again, Ferris was man-of-the-match. The trick now is for Ulster to win again in Arioni this weekend and also secure a bonus point in order to stay in contention in the pool.

Connacht, meanwhile, managed a try from Gavin Duffy, plus a conversion and two penalties from Niall O’Connor but it was not enough to stop them from going down 14-10 to Gloucester in a tight game at the Sportsground.

Stringer does well for Saracens

PETER STRINGER made a successful start to his loan period at Saracens by coming off the bench to help his new club to a 31-26 Heineken Cup pool success over the Ospreys at Wembley Stadium.

The Ireland and Munster scrum–half was introduced in the second half as Saracens were trying to hold on to their lead. Stringer responded with an accomplished display which bodes well for his loan period with the leading English side.

He commented: “I only got to London on Monday night, so it has been a bit of a whirlwind ever since. I’m delighted to get the chance to come over here because I always want to be involved and don’t particularly enjoy watching games from the stand.”

The 34-year-old Stringer admits that he was pretty down with the situation which has seen him drop down the pecking the pecking order behind Conor Murray and Tomas O’Leary at Munster. He said: “As a professional rugby player you want to play the game, so to get the call from Saracens was huge for me.”

Sailor Murphy qualifies for Olympics

ANNALISE MURPHY from Dun Laoghaire in Dublin has become the first Irish sailor to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games.

She did so by moving into one of the leading positions in the Laser Radial event at the ISAF World Sailing Championships in Freemantle, Western Australia. Unfortunately, Murphy was to eventually narrowly miss out on the bronze medal at the World championships but the Olympic qualification was a huge consolation.