Generally, when we reflect at the end of a year on the sporting happenings over the previous 12 months, they tend to feel inevitable in hindsight.

Certainly, the notion that Ireland would win gold medals in rowing and boxing at the delayed Olympic Games didn’t seem too fanciful in January (of 2021 or even 2020) while Limerick repeating their All-Ireland hurling title – only in even more emphatic fashion – was something that was feared in all of the other counties.

Limerick players, from left, Barry Hennessy and his daughter Hope; Graeme Mulcahy and daughter Róise; selector Paul Kinnerk and his daughter Enya; and Nickie Quaid and his son Dáithí after the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final. \ Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Having usurped Dundalk as the top side in the SSE Airtricity League in 2020 by going unbeaten, Shamrock Rovers were expected to frank that status with another league title victory; and, while Ireland beating New Zealand was a mild pleasant surprise, the fact that it had happened twice in the previous few years meant it was not a complete shock.

And then, we had someone other than Dublin claiming the All-Ireland senior football title for the first time since 2014.

A turnaround

To be fair, Sam Maguire going in a rural direction wasn’t completely unthinkable at the outset of 2021. Kerry, with a talented group of players maturing, had pushed Dublin close in 2019 and then been suckered by Cork in November 2020 with no recourse to a back door. Mayo had again reached the final and took a refreshed look to their panel as James Horan showed himself to be unafraid to make changes despite the quick turnaround between the 2020 season ending and the 2021 edition’s expected start – which ended up being delayed by a few months.

Same Maguire headed back to the countryside this year after Tyrone overthrew Mayo in an entertaining All-Ireland Final. \ Sportsfile

While Cavan had won Ulster in 2020, their final victory over Donegal had been considered to be slightly against the head and so, if there was to be a bona fide Ulster challenger for Sam, Declan Bonner’s side was seen as being in the best position to be that.

Given that Mickey Harte’s 18-year reign as Tyrone manager had come to an end, the Red Hands were considered to be in transition, especially as new duo Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan were seeking to employ a more expansive brand of play.

And yet, those discounting Tyrone on the basis of a change on the sideline were ignoring the fact that Harte himself had led a team to an All-Ireland in his first year in charge – so too did John O’Mahony with Galway in 1998, Jack O’Connor with Kerry in 2004 and 2009, Pat O’Shea with the Kingdom in 2007 and Jim Gavin and Dessie Farrell with Dublin in 2013 and 2020 respectively.

Mayo will be back

There are of course going to be teething problems – in June, Tyrone conceded six goals to Kerry in a league game in Killarney that had the commentators lauding Peter Keane’s side – but the intensity of a straight knockout championship brought out the best in them. Throw in the whole drama around the COVID-19 outbreak and postponement of their semi-final with Kerry and there was an extra layer of siege mentality to drive them on.

Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly displayed a pivotal performance in the All-Ireland Semi Final against Dublin in August. \ Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Beyond that, though, it should be noted that the All-Ireland final performance against Mayo was an excellent one, so many players executing as planned and hoped on the biggest occasion. Having beaten Dublin, it seemed that Mayo would finally end their long wait but the tale of woe had another chapter added instead. Still and all, they’ll be back for more in 2022.

For the last half-decade, the football championship race has been something of a procession with the hurling more unpredictable but the emergence of Limerick as a cast-iron superpower has inspired a role-reversal. A year ago, we wrote after their 2020 win that: “with 31-year-old goalkeeper Nickie Quaid the oldest member of the panel, they will be contenders for the foreseeable future. The challenge for everyone else is to work out how to stop them.”

A lovely Limerick display

A couple of defeats for the Shannonsiders in the Allianz Hurling League might have given the impression that they were not the same force. Then, in the Munster semi-final against Cork, a penalty save by Quaid prevented Limerick from falling five points behind before two goals before half-time helped them to what was an eight-point win.

Cian Lynch of Limerick during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Limerick in Croke Park, Dublin.\ Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

We wondered what might have happened if Patrick Horgan had netted the penalty – they were good front-runners, but could Limerick come from behind? Well, in the Munster final against Tipperary, they went in trailing by ten points at half-time and still won comfortably after a supreme turnaround in the third quarter. The All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford and the rematch with Cork in the final never really became contests.

The dominance of John Kiely’s side was summed up by the fact that they won 12 All-Stars – we’re approaching “the only team that can beat them is themselves” territory.

Impressive female performances

In camogie, Galway’s second title in three years means that the previous Cork-Kilkenny hegemony has passed, for now. When Katrina Mackey scored a goal to put Cork ahead late in the All-Ireland final, one might have expected another title on Leeside but Galway’s response was emphatic, underpinned by Siobhán McGrath’s goal.

In the past, an ‘upstart’ side might not have down a traditional power like that, but we saw it in the ladies’ football too as Meath produced a wonderfully controlled display to stop Dublin from winning a fifth straight title.

Meath players, from left, Katie Newe, Emma Duggan, Vikki Wall and Máire O'Shaughnessy celebrate after the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Senior Football Championship Final match against Dublin. \ Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Just as impressive was the way the Royals had wiped out a seven-point Cork lead in the last two minutes of the semi-final – and all this having just come up from intermediate. Proof that there is no need for an inferiority complex against the top sides.

Brighter days

That’s an attitude that Stephen Kenny is trying to instil in the Republic of Ireland football team and it almost resulted in a famous win away to Portugal only for two late Cristiano Ronaldo goals to give the hosts victory. The problem for Ireland was that there were more than a few games against lower-ranked sides where the display and result didn’t pass muster.

Thankfully, the year ended with some good results and the outlook is a little bit brighter ahead of 2022.

The same can be said on the rugby front, especially after the autumn sweep against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina. After a second straight up-and-down Six Nations, we were still unsure as to the direction of the Andy Farrell era but things do look to have clicked now. That said, there is no room for complacency.

Ultimately, the top practitioners are where they are because they go out and repeat excellence, day after day. It’s what brought those Olympic golds for Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy in rowing and Kellie Harrington in boxing, and success in the Paralympics for Ellen Keane, Jason Smyth and Katie George-Dunlevy. And it’s what keeps us all watching.