Dan Sheridan/INPHO Simon Zebo's Thomond Park tenure will end as he heads to Paris.
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So what do you want for Irish sport this Christmas?
Tommy Martin looks forward to what 2018 may have in store for our favourite athletes.

IT’S THE MOST wonderful time of the year, and even your humble sports columnist is not immune.

Normally he’s not your go-to guy for tidings of comfort and joy. All year round a sceptic, a critic and a cynic, at this special time even he must raise a glass in festive cheer.

And so for the week that’s in it, let’s have no mention of FIFA corruption, doping scandals and Conor McGregor: The Tony Montana Years.

Let’s not bemoan Irish soccer’s player pathway, rugby’s concussion timebomb or the plight of the club GAA player. Instead, pour yourself a Baileys, crack open the Quality Street, for here follow some reasons to be cheerful for 2018. God bless us everyone!

Let’s tackle the biggy first. We’re not going to the World Cup. This is a bad thing, of course. We could turn up our noses and claim we’re better off out of it, what with FIFA’s dodgy dealing and Russia’s general skullduggery.

Alas, once the goals start flying in we’ll be wishing we were part of Vlad’s big party. There will be colour and excitement and drama. There will be also be tedium and controversy and cynicism. But the world will be watching and we won’t be there, trying out our celebrated brand of bonhomie on the famously good-natured Russian police.

And that’s good for a number of reasons, aside from the physical wellbeing of the best fans in the world. First because the Republic of Ireland’s 2017 performances suggest that we would have added little to football’s global jamboree, and might even have endured a Euro 2012 style pummeling.

Also, it feels like Irish football could do with a time out, and given that our next competitive game will be in March 2019 (hello UEFA Nations League!), that’s what we are getting.

Time to see whether there is genuine international moxy in young contenders like Sean Maguire, Declan Rice, Callum O’Dowda, Liam Kelly and Ryan Manning. Time to iron out the painstaking restructuring at underage level that could easily be ignored in the buzz of a big tournament. Time too, perhaps, for the FAI and Martin O’Neill to think about their future together.

If Irish soccer doesn’t need a World Cup right now, then Irish rugby would love one. Ireland have beaten every other major team in the past two seasons, and while still capable of the occasional brainfart, would surely be among the favourites were Japan 2019 to start tomorrow. We have the best coach and no other team outside the All Blacks can match our selection in that sweet spot between numbers six and 10.

And then there were the events of recent weeks, when the Irish provinces faced down English rivals on the field, and French suitors off it. Tying up Tadhg Furlong, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander on new contracts was quite the war cry ahead of the looming battle for the very soul of Irish rugby with the big money boys abroad. A serious tilt at the Six Nations is the least expected in 2018, and it’s no surprise that Ryanair have put on extra flights to Bilbao for this season’s European finals.

Time for another Baileys, because those yuletide good vibes extend to the GAA. A survey calling itself the Teneo Sports’ Sponsorship Index (TSSI) was published this week, revealing that the All-Ireland Championships were the sports events respondents were most looking forward to in 2018. An early endorsement of the Super 8s and hurling’s provincial group system?

Maybe, and why not? Everyone loves Championship, and now there is going to be more if it. What’s not to like?

Last summer Joe Canning played five times in the 95-day duration of Galway’s All-Ireland winning campaign. In comparison, Kevin De Bruyne played 17 times for Manchester City in the same time period this season. It’s not a fair comparison, but fans of other sports get to see their best players many more times than GAA supporters do. Next summer that changes a little, at least for the top teams. Elitist, maybe, but there’s no show like a Joe show, as they say.

And then there’s horse racing. Aidan O’Brien literally broke a world record this year and still got upstaged by his own son, Joseph, who only went and won the Melbourne Cup. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott are set for another duel to the death for National Hunt glory, but wily Jessica Harrington might spoil a few more big days for them again.

Now for some stocking fillers. Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Paul Dunne and Leona Maguire are all trending towards big 2018 seasons ahead. Ireland’s cricketers play their first ever Test match in May. Get ready to add Jason Quigley and Michael Conlan to the list of professional boxers like Carl Frampton, Ryan Burnett, Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan doing the business on the world stage, while Joe Ward is still polishing a World silver and European gold from 2017 at amateur level.

At the age of 17, Sligo’s Mona McSharry is set for great things after just missing out on a European senior swimming medal last week. Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe are tearing it up in the Modern Pentathlon world, while Annalise Murphy is circumnavigating the actual world in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Jenny Egan is a regular on international canoeing podiums. Irish track cyclists have won big medals in 2017. We’re European champions at showjumping, didn’t you know?! Tom Barr is a good bet for a medal at the European Athletics Championships.

Women’s sport in Ireland is at a tipping point, the 46,000-odd crowd at the Ladies Football final a stunning international milestone. The public battles the women’s soccer and rugby teams conducted with their governing bodies underlined how much needs to be done, but also that women’s teams will not put up with any more crap.

There’s lots more besides, but the Baileys is taking hold now. January will come soon enough and we’ll be moaning about Jose Mourinho, GAA elitism and chronic government underfunding of sport. Until then, shush! Are those…are those sleigh bells?

Let me know in the comments what you’re most looking forward to in 2018 - and a merry Christmas and happy new year to all you lovely readers!

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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