How Ire­land’s showjumpers re­turned to the top

A new regime has pro­pelled Ire­land from the dol­drums in Rio to gold at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships

Horse & Hound - - Contents - By PIPPA CUCKSON

RO­DRIGO PESSOA is widely cred­ited with re­ju­ve­nat­ing the Ir­ish showjump­ing team, who clinched Euro­pean team gold de­spite be­ing one man down.

But the in­spi­ra­tional Brazil­ian’s ap­point­ment as chef d’equipe in March was just part of Ire­land’s first, be­lated at­tempt at a co­he­sive se­nior high-per­for­mance struc­ture. It was cre­ated over the win­ter with no­table in­put from the riders them­selves.

Vet­eran Ir­ish com­men­ta­tor Louise Parkes has fol­lowed the team’s Na­tions Cup per­for­mances for decades and de­scribed Mr Pessoa, his as­sis­tant Michael Blake and high-per­for­mance chair Gerry Mullins as an “ex­tra­or­di­nary trin­ity”.

“They are driv­ing things for­ward with a sin­gu­lar sense of pur­pose,” added Mrs Parkes.

“A lack of trust has long been an is­sue in the Ir­ish camp, but that has changed and it seems much calmer now, with riders hap­pier in the knowl­edge that if they do their job right then they’ll get their chance.”

UN­DER PRES­SURE

IR­ISH morale hit rock bot­tom in Olympic year. De­spite hav­ing seven riders in the world top 50, Ire­land failed to qual­ify a team.

Na­tional gov­ern­ing body Horse Sport Ire­land (HSI) was al­ready un­der pres­sure be­fore Rio to re­struc­ture from agri­cul­ture min­is­ter Michael Creed. Af­ter the Games, Sport Ire­land la­dled on more crit­i­cism, urg­ing “the

adop­tion of a per­for­mance di­rec­tor model, with clar­ity of roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties”.

Mean­while, riders grasped the net­tle and asked HSI for a meet­ing, which in­terim chief ex­ec­u­tive James Kennedy ea­gerly ar­ranged in Novem­ber. One out­come was a new riders’ group, in turn rep­re­sented to HSI by the pop­u­lar Michael Blake, an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in Ire­land’s youth pro­gramme.

TEAM-FIRST FO­CUS

CIAN O’CON­NOR says riders un­der­stand sac­ri­fices in per­sonal goals must be made for team glory, and that riders will save good horses for teams when they have con­fi­dence that man­agers have a true un­der­stand­ing of “high per­for­mance”.

“It’s the first time I can re­mem­ber we’ve had some­one in charge [Mr Kennedy] who lis­tened to the riders,” he said. “Be­fore, it was like we were the en­emy.”

Mr Blake quickly es­tab­lished rap­port with se­nior riders, too, and as act­ing chef d’equipe led Ire­land to two Na­tions Cup wins on the Florida win­ter cir­cuit.

Af­ter Mr Pessoa was signed, Mr Blake’s con­tri­bu­tion was for­malised as team de­vel­op­ment man­ager. Mr Blake in turn is as­sisted by Tay­lor Vard, fur­ther eyes on the ground for Mr Pessoa, who is based abroad.

In its new “can do” spirit, Ire­land has mus­tered enough horse power to ser­vice 15 Na­tions Cups al­ready this year. Mr Vard even took an ex­per­i­ment team with two eight-year-old horses to Gi­jon last week to fin­ish third, two places ahead of Team GB.

Mr Blake said: “Gothen­burg was the night of my life. I am so proud of Ro­drigo, he is such a ge­nius, and it’s so easy to work with him. For all that he has done, he has no ego; he’s a real nice guy.”

As for the mod­est Mr Pessoa, he said: “We’ve had this goal since the be­gin­ning of the year. We lose to­gether, we win to­gether; they’ve shown a lot of de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“I’ve tried to recre­ate a lit­tle bit what I have done with the Brazil­ian team, to work in hon­esty and trans­parency be­tween us, but to keep it light and not to force any­thing. I want them to be to­gether. They ac­cepted this very well, and gave me the chance to lead them. It will be easy from now, go­ing on.”

‘It’s the first time some­one has lis­tened to the riders. Be­fore, it was like we were

the en­emy’

CIAN O’CON­NOR

The new high-per­for­mance struc­ture in Ire­land has been em­braced by their riders

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