The resignation of Rodrigo Pessoa as High Performance Manager of the Irish Olympic show jumping team was presented on Friday by various broadcasters as something of an unexpected event.

This does raise some obvious questions. When he was recruited two-and-a-half years ago by the sport’s governing body, Horse Sport Ireland, some facts about him would have been apparent.

1) He is Brazilian.

2) As a rider on the Brazilian show jumping team he had helped secure for his native country two bronze team medals at previous Olympics (as well as an individual gold medal for himself).

3) He was still a major international show jumper in his own right, and as such, with the right horse, might at some stage be selected for the Brazilian team at Tokyo.

Indeed, it could be argued that some of these facts were instrumental in Pessoa getting the job with the Irish team in the first place. The advantages of his Olympic experience and his considerable knowledge as a top-ranked rider greatly outweighed any possible disadvantages that might arise due to his nationality. 

And so it proved. With a very strong High Performance Committee formed around him – including Irish show jumping veterans Gerry Mullins, Michael Blake and Taylor Vard – Pessoa went about restructuring the Irish team ethos and eventually steered Shane Sweetnam, Bertram Allen, Denis Lynch and Cian O’Connor into the gold medal position at the European Show Jumping Championships at Gothenburg in 2017 – the first time Ireland’s show jumpers had won any team championship medal since 2001.

With this confidence-booster behind them, the Irish squad was now focused by Pessoa on the elusive team place at Tokyo, and it came, to great popular acclaim, at Barcelona in October this year, when Darragh Kenny, Peter Moloney, Cian O’Connor and Paul O’Shea not only grabbed the Tokyo ticket, but also won the FEI Nations Cup Final for the first time.

Friday’s news that Pessoa would now be stepping down as High Performance Manager should not have come as any great shock to the governing body. He had delivered what they’d hired him to do, and he now had a horse of his own that might give him a chance of qualifying for Olympic selection on the Brazilian team. But there has been no indication from HSI that they tried to persuade him to stay on, to see the team through the gates of the Tokyo stadium or reach some compromise on extending his contract, which might seem a logical step, given his unprecedented success with the team. 

However, indications are that HSI representatives have been scouring the international talent base to find a new show jumping manager, and there are also strong rumours that the High Performance management team that Pessoa had so carefully assembled around him might be replaced.

One question jumps out….why?

Pessoa, the consummate professional, has already signalled his support for the appointment of his No.2, Michael Blake, as the man to take over the reins for the nine months leading up to Tokyo, so that the finely-tuned system that has delivered the victories would be kept intact.

In his statement on Friday, the Brazilian said: “Michael Blake has not only been a valuable member of this committee but also my assistant, his relentless enthusiasm was infectious and I will always consider him a close ally.”

Michael Blake (right) with Rodrigo Pessoa

It’s also known that 40 of Ireland’s top international riders recently signed a letter sent to HSI indicating their preference for Blake as the new manager, should Pessoa step down.

With no Irish show jumping team able to qualify for the three previous Olympic Games, the achievement of Pessoa and his high performance team cannot be underestimated. 

It almost beggars belief that the governing body would now even be considering major changes to this team, replacing them with people who have not worked with the Irish riders and horses to such great effect over the last two-and-a-half years. Do they want to start again from scratch, with the Olympics so close?  

In a statement that followed the Barcelona Olympic qualification triumph in October, Horse Sport Ireland’s CEO Ronan Murphy recorded special thanks “to our High Performance Director Rodrigo Pessoa and his support team, Michael Blake, Taylor Vard and Gerry Mullins, who have played a huge part in delivering this result and expertly guiding our High Performance Jumping programme in recent years.”

It would be extremely odd if HSI were now to replace that team, following such a vote of confidence by its Chief Executive.

-Colin McClelland