Show jumping feud splits Ireland

  • A bitter rift over the international selection process has split the Irish show jumping team and could end their hopes to stay in the Samsung Super League.

    The row started at the end of last month, when Cian O’ Connor returned to the team after serving a three-months suspension from international competitions for inadvertently committing a doping offence at the Athens Olympics.

    When O’Connor’s horse, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for banned drugs last year, top show jumper Jessica Kurten announced that she would not compete in a team that had him among his members. True to her word, she pulled out of the Dublin Horse Show only days before it was due to start. At first, it looked like Kurten’s horses had suffered an injury, but her husband, Eckhard, quickly refuted this explanation. “The horses are fine. Not one horse is sick, not one horse is lame,” he told the Irish Times.

    Reserve Clem MacMahon was called in to replace Kurten, but Ireland had barely had a chance to digest her departure when another rider followed suit. Harry Marshall declared that he would no longer jump on the Irish team this season because O’Connor had an undue influence over the selection process.

    Marshall blamed the Kildare rider for having been excluded from the team that contested the Aga Khan Cup last Friday. “They told me at six o’clock I was on the team and they told me at seven o’clock I wasn’t — that was after the Army kicked up and Cian O’Connor said he wouldn’t jump on the team if Shane Carey wasn’t on it,” he told the Irish Times.

    Along with Marshall went Tom Slattery, a member of the international selection panel, who resigned his post.

    Marshall’s outburst initially met a stern response. The Equestrian Federation of Ireland issued a statement saying that “It is not the responsibility of the individual riders to decide who does, or does not, jump on any of the senior teams. Nor is it proper for a rider to withdraw their name from possible future selection if they are unhappy that they themselves were not selected for a particular team. This type of behaviour would make the sport ungovernable, were it allowed to continue.”

    Later, however, EFI President Avril Doyle MEP said that she would ask the Executive Committee to seek a thorough review of the international show jumping selection process at the end of the Samsung Nations Cup League season. “I am deeply unhappy with what has transpired at international level within Irish show jumping in recent weeks, and I wish to sit down with the Show Jumping Association of Ireland to have a complete review of their selection procedure as soon as the current season is over.”

    Just hours after Doyle’s statement, show jumping Chef d’Equipe Eamonn Rice felt the need to defend his choices. “It has always been my understanding that when the Chef d’Equipe makes his final selection, then that is the only selection, and supersedes any discussions or tentative plans that may go on beforehand,” he said, insisting that the process had been difficult because some riders had failed to comply with his prior instructions. “I wish to repeat that the best team available competed in Dublin on Friday.”

    Rice also revealed that he had to deal with the “unprecendented situation of a direct threat being made to an Irish team member.” It later emerged that O’Connor had received several threats at the show and had to hire some bodyguards to protect himself.

    The Kildare rider firmly rebutted the allegation of having meddled with the team’s selection process and turned the tables against other riders. “In my heart and soul I believe that certain individuals thought I was dead and buried after the Olympics and now they’re sick because I’m back with a vengeance, getting on teams and jumping well,” he told the Irish Independent.

    While Irish fans watch aghast, the feud could jeopardise Ireland’s chances to stay in the Samsung Super League. The team is fighting tooth and nail to avoid relegation and the next leg of the championship, which takes place in Aachen at the end of the month, is a crucial step to ensure they stay in the top league.

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