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10 major reasons why 2019 will epic year for Northern Ireland sport

 

By Steven Beacom

As curtain comes down on 2018, we look at what's in store over next 12 months.

1. OPEN SEASON

From July 18 to 21 the greatest golf tournament in the world will be played in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

Royal Portrush will host the Open Championship plus world renowned stars such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth.

Local heroes Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell will also be there along with Rory McIlroy. By then the Holywood hero may have won The Masters in April to complete a Career Grand Slam.

2. FAR EASTERN PROMISE

Ireland will enter the 2019 Rugby World Cup as one of the favourites to lift the trophy. The competition will start in Japan on September 20 and finish with the final on November 2.

After a stunning 2018, when they won the Six Nations and defeated New Zealand at home for the first time, captain Rory Best, wing sensation Jacob Stockdale and their team-mates will fancy going all the way in the tournament to give departing head coach Joe Schmidt the perfect send-off.

3. DOUBLE DUTCH

Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifying draw couldn't have been much tougher but it does mean some huge group games in 2019 home and away against Germany and Holland.

Michael O'Neill's men are used to facing Toni Kroos and co but the Dutch have not played at Windsor Park since 1977 when Johan Cruyff took on t George Best.

This time it will be Virgil van Dijk versus Kyle Lafferty!

4. REA'S FIVE ALIVE

Northern Ireland speed star Jonathan Rea created history in 2018 by becoming the first rider to win four consecutive World Superbike titles. Now his sights are set on becoming the first man to claim five world crowns.

Given his stunning performances of late, nobody will bet against him. Rea's bid for glory is scheduled to begin in Australia in February.

5. FRAMPTON'S FUTURE

Carl Frampton is one of Northern Ireland's most popular sporting stars ever. After losing a compelling world title fight to Josh Warrington in Manchester, the Belfast man's decision on whether he returns to the ring in 2019 and once again aims to regain his status as world champion or retires will be eagerly awaited.

Also on the agenda will be big fights for Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes, and Ryan Burnett's comeback from injury.

6. TOP MARK

In 2018 Antrim snooker star Mark Allen proved that he could deliver in the major events, winning the Masters title and reaching the final of the UK Championship.

The big target for Allen in 2019 will be to become world champion, following in the footsteps of Northern Ireland greats Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor. The Crucible tournament starts on April 20.

7. SINGING THE BLUES

The 2018 Irish League title race between Crusaders and Coleraine was just epic, going all the way down to the final minutes of the season. In 2019, it could be even better.

David Jeffrey's Ballymena United, David Healy's Linfield and Gary Hamilton's Glenavon are all in the running. The Sky Blues, Belfast Blues and Lurgan Blues will also be wary of champions Crusaders.

8. TYRONE POWER

Mickey Harte guided Tyrone to three All-Ireland titles in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Another great achievement was leading the Red Hand County to the 2018 final.

Dominant Dublin, one of the finest sides of all time, proved too strong but Harte is determined to take Tyrone back to the 2019 decider. First comes the Ulster Championship with Tyrone facing Derry and Down up against Armagh.

9. GIANT GLORY

The Belfast Giants last won the Elite League title in 2014. However, the growing belief amongst ice hockey fans in the country is that the current side have the talent and tenacity to bridge that gap.

Under the shrewd leadership of coach Adam Keefe, the Giants are enjoying an impressive campaign to date and will aim to finish the job in 2019.

10. EURO QUEST

The Ireland women's hockey team were star performers in 2018, reaching the final of the World Cup in London - a journey during which Ulster woman Ayeisha McFerran shone as she won the goalkeeper of the tournament award.

In 2019 they will be out to show their class once again in the European Championships.

Graham Shaw's team will face Germany and Belarus in their group as well as England when the tournament starts in August - before thoughts then turn to Tokyo 2020 and attempting to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first ever time.

Belfast Telegraph

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