We focus on the cream of Northern Ireland’s young talent who are ready to rise to new heights.
So much has happened recently that it’s hard to recall that last Friday in October, but it’s still worth revisiting and not just because it turned out to be a particularly gloomy evening for the Ravenhill faithful.
A heavily diluted Munster had just turned up and performed a smash and grab job at Ravenhill over an also weakened Ulster, which had consigned Brian McLaughlin’s squad to their third consecutive reverse, and yet amidst all the hand-wringing there was still someone who had caught the eye in the home side’s generally miserable performance; step forward 20 year-old centre Nevin Spence.
He certainly didn’t hang back on that cold and wet night and showed himself as a player eager to make his mark and someone who could offer himself as more than just a handy back up in Ulster’s midfield a season after the former Academy player’s debut against the Ospreys.
Clearly McLaughlin was also impressed by what he saw against Munster. Spence’s strength going forward and power in the tackle had been noted and Darren Cave’s misfortune with injury has given the Ballynahinch man his opportunity to slot in alongside Paddy Wallace.
He has taken his chance, putting in a standout effort full of effort and exuberance on his Heineken Cup debut against Bath at Ravenhill. Then there was last week when, again, he delivered with a very profitable shift at the Rec, even ending up doing a rather dangerous looking somersault in the process of scoring a vital touchdown in the left corner to give Ulster control of the game.
The New Year offers the former Wallace High School pupil further opportunity to continue building on his upwardly mobile progress and already the former Six Nations winner with Ireland U20s is looking like a very useful home grown investment offering significant return.
For the moment, this is a good time and it looks like he will be hard to shift from Ulster’s midfield. So far we've only seen vignettes, there should be much more to come in 2011.
It is well documented that Northern Ireland could do with a few more players competing at the highest level in England so it’s time for rising young star Craig Cathcart to step forward.
The former Glengormley High School pupil has received the very best guidance since he stepped into a Manchester United School of Excellence as a teenager and now he’s a trusted performer on the Premier League and international stage.
A lack of first team opportunities at Manchester United left him frustrated but the 21-year-old has got his career back on track at top flight new boys Blackpool.
Injuries have curtailed his progress but Pool boss Ian Holloway, who was happy to bring the Glengormley man to the seaside in a £500,000 deal, clearly feels the centre-back can frustrate some of the best strikers in the world.
Spells at Watford, Plymouth and Royal Antwerp have enhanced his football education but a three-year deal agreed with Blackpool in August has given him the opportunity to show he belongs on the big stage.
But Cathcart has also proved he can make a dramatic impact in a Northern Ireland jersey. The Green and White Army will never forget his performance against Slovenia in Maribor back in September when he performed an unfamiliar left-back role and set up the winner for Corry Evans.
Involved in the international set-up from under-17 level, Cathcart will now be hungry to add to his one senior appearance even though manager Nigel Worthington has plenty of defensive options.
Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Rangers and Chelsea were among the many clubs that spotted Cathcart’s potential but it was Manchester United who launched his career. From Carnmoney Colts and St Andrew’s Boys Club, he’s made it to the top — now his challenge is to stay there.
As long as he can steer clear of injuries, the Northern Ireland Youth Player of the Year in 2003 has a bright future in the game.
Unbeaten puncher Carl Frampton has revved up his career and is now ready for blast-off.
The Belfast man, managed by former World champion Barry McGuigan, enjoyed an eye-catching
2010 but 2011 could well see him become a household name.
Having picked up the Celtic super-bantamweight title with a second round stoppage of Gavin Reid at the Ulster Hall and stopped former European title challenger Yuri Voronin in three, Frampton has shown that the next 12 months could be very big indeed.
The super-bantam division is one of the hottest in Britain, Europe and the World with man mouth watering clashes available to the Tiger's Bay man, whose year was capped off with the birth of daughter Carla.
McGuigan is determined to plot a course towards a world title shot but that can wait until 2012, the big one this year has to be the European title.
Limerick's Willie Casey was the Irish fighter of 2010 having risen from nowhere to claim the European super-bantam belt but he is now ready to vacate in order to box for the WBA World title.
Spain's Kiko Martinez will bid to reclaim the European title early in the New Year and he has already told the 23-year-old hard hitting Belfast man that he will give him a shot at the title.
Before that Frampton could have another title around his waist, should McGuigan manage to lure Commonwealth champion Jamie Arthur into a showdown with his protege.
“I've no doubt that he can become a real superstar,” said McGuigan.
“He's very humble, he's got the dedication and he's an exceptional boxer. You saw in his last fight the speed and he's very smart as well.”
So, the New Year beckons the former Irish senior champion with a wealth of opportunities ready to be grasped by his flashing fists.
Eugene Laverty’s recent move to the premier class, doubles Northern Ireland’s involvement in the World Superbike Championship next season. The 24-year-old Toomebridge lad, riding factory Yamahas, will pit his talent against the best in the world in 2011, that includes Ballyclare’s Jonathan Rea, currently riding for rival manufacturer, Ten Kate Honda.
Laverty demonstrated his fine talent at Supersport level — narrowly missing out on the world championship title, both this season and in 2009, despite taking an unprecedented 12 victories from 18 podium finishes.
Eugene is a quiet unassuming character who goes about his business with a methodical approach.
But don’t be fooled, under that laid back and often heavy eyed façade, lies a dedicated athlete with a unique racing brain.
He all but dominated World Supersport this season with the UK based Parkalgar Honda outfit, and but for a solitary engine failure at Brno back in July, Laverty would have undoubtedly taken the title after storming to eight victories.
He eventually lost out to Turkish rider Kenan Sofuoglu after a titanic season-long battle that came to a head in Italy, when Laverty’s last corner, last lap manoeuvre had them both in the gravel.
He took some unfair criticism for his boldness, but it proved the youngster had steel and determination in his armoury.
Only American Ben Spies has stepped into the WSB cauldron and taken the title as a rookie in his debut season back in 2009.
We certainly can’t expect that from Laverty, having never even ridden a Superbike before his Magny Cours test in October when he excelled. But do expect him to ruffle a few feathers, and if you don’t believe me go ask Kenan Sofuoglu!
Sycerika McMahon (swimming)
There is simply no other sporting teenager on this island more gifted than Sycerika McMahon.
The 15-year-old has had a great year in 2010 and assuming she remains injury-free, the following year can only bring more unprecedented success.
Living in Portaferry, she trains every school morning between 6 and 8am with veteran Leander coach Bobby Madine in the Robinson Centre pool and her progress over the past four years has been astonishing.
In the summer, Sycerika became the first Ulster swimmer to win a European junior championships medal in Helsinki, when placing third in the 400m individual medley and followed that up with becoming the youngest Northern Ireland competitor to make a Commonwealth Games final.
Her year ended in some style when claiming 12 gold medals at the Bloomfield Ulster Open championships.
Veterans of the sport have never known such a talent to shoot across the swimming horizon, though her desire reminds many of Marion Madine — daughter of Sycerika's coach Bobby and a Commonwealth Games finalist in 1994 when she finished fourth in the 200m butterfly.
In her second year at the European junior championships level, McMahon will no doubt have her eyes on gold.
Unlike many sports, the European juniors are a very good barometer for those who can be expected to progress into top seniors and so it's little wonder that everyone in swimming is getting very excited about her ultimate potential.