The only highlight of Ireland’s equestrian effort at the Rio Olympics turned out to be a breakthrough in what is sometimes regarded as the Cinderella of the sport – dressage.

For the rest, it was disappointing in the extreme. In both the so-called flagship disciplines, show jumping and eventing, Ireland actually did worse than they had four years ago in London.

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Judy Reynolds – breakthrough in dressage

No-one in the Irish contingent came anywhere near a medal at Rio, and it was left to Kildare rider Judy Reynolds, an Olympic first-timer, to make the only positive headline when she got through to the third-round final in dressage. Though she ultimately finished in 18th, the 35-year-old, with her gelding Vancouver K, was the first Irish competitor in 24 years to get as far as the final.

In Eventing, Ireland achieved a team eighth, compared to a fifth in London, while the highest individual place at Rio went to Jonty Evans in ninth. At London, Aoife Clark achieved an individual seventh.

Certainly, Ireland’s eventers made a brave effort by carrying the burden of an elimination on the cross country course at Rio. But then, they also had an elimination in London. People forget. Or choose to forget.

It was in show jumping, though, where Ireland’s weakness manifested itself most prominently.

For the third consecutive time failing to qualify an Olympic team, Ireland’s governing body, Horse Sport Ireland,had to settle for a single individual place and after a long period of reflection selected a rider so far down the Longines world show jumping rankings that many followers of the sport had not heard of him before.

With a mountain to climb – equalling or bettering Ireland’s first ever equestrian Olympic bronze medal achieved at London in 2012 by Meath’s Cian O’Connor – the selection of 30 year-old Greg Broderick was, to quote a term used by many sports commentators at the time, “controversial”.

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Greg Broderick

However, Broderick was only one half of the equation, for his partner was a magnificent Irish Sport Horse called Going Global, bred by Ita Brennan and produced by the rider, and jumped with great success as part of the Irish Nations’ Cup teams that campaigned internationally during 2015.

It was explained that Broderick’s low world ranking was in large part due to his absence from international competition for eight months, approximately September 2015 to June of 2016, due to a groin injury.

However, this absence in itself did raise questions as to his experience at the very top level of the sport, when other contenders for the sole jumping slot – Denis Lynch, Bertram Allen and Cian O’Connor – had been battling away on various horses in five-star competitions worldwide during the same period.

Allen, at the time of Broderick’s selection, was actually ranked amongst the world’s top ten show jumpers, such was the intensity and success of his competition schedule.

Lynch, with his outstanding stallion All Star, finished fifth in the World Cup Final during this period, while O’Connor with his equally talented stallion Good Luck had major placings in five-star Grands Prix and also carried with him that rare commodity, an Olympic CV.

The four main contenders for the single Rio spot had also formed the team for the vital Olympic qualifying event at Aachen in Germany in September of 2015, the European Show Jumping Championships, but, tellingly, Broderick and Going Global finished on Ireland’s worst score in the two-round competition.

Media suggestions that the breeding cachet of riding an impressive Irish Sport Horse like Going Global was giving Broderick an unfair advantage in the selection process were swatted away by the governing body, Horse Sport Ireland, but some commentators were bemused when it was discovered that the world governing body, the FEI, did not have either rider or horse listed on its database as ever having won a Grand Prix, at any level, together or separately.

In the end, it appeared that the selection of Going Global and Greg Broderick was based on a performance record that included seven Nations’ Cup appearances during 2015 and the first half of 2016, and taking part in three five-star Grands Prix.

Denis Lynch, by comparison, had competed in 20 five-star Grands Prix during the same period and  three Nations’ Cups. The others had similar levels of recent experience at the very top level of the sport.

Whatever the final reason for Broderick’s selection, he was given the opportunity to silence his critics in the cauldron that was the massive Deodoro Stadium at Rio this week.

This he failed to do. He crashed out in 50th place. It was not a failure to win a medal that raised eyebrows in the end. It was his failure to progress any further than the first two qualifying rounds. There were three more rounds to go before he would even glimpse a podium.

Like the rest of Ireland’s equestrian effort at the Rio Olympics, with the possible exception of dressage, this was a very bad day at the office. Or rather, to put it in its proper context of training, competition and selection, it was a very bad year at the office.

Ireland deserved better.

Colin McClelland