The battle that the Irish handball fraternity have anticipated with great zest since the start of the 2012 championship has eventually come around as current champion, Cavan’s Paul “Gunner” Brady goes head to head with Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy this weekend in Roscommon.
32 year old Brady is without doubt the most successful Irish player to have graced the 40×20 court. His domination has been unrivalled in both the domestic and international stages. The Breffni star is chasing a staggering eighth straight GAA handball 40×20 singles title this weekend and ninth in total. But for a 21-20 third game reverse at the hands of Cork’s Tony Healy in 2004, Brady would be gunning for his tenth successive victory. In October, Brady will be slight favourite to secure his fourth World crown at the fantastic purpose-built 22 court complex at the City West arena in Dublin. He is also third in the all-time standings for USA Open gongs, having won his seventh in a row in 2010 and but for a finger injury twelve months ago, he would have been a hot favourite to have recorded an eighth.
Brady remains in buoyant mood and is as committed as ever to add another senior gold medal to his impressive list of accolades. “My preparations have been great up to now. The injury has healed as well as it’s going to, so it’s not a factor at this point. I have prepared as well as I ever have so I’m ready on all levels for the challenge that lies ahead.”
“I’m more interested in extending my overall record and want to collect my 9th title. The fact that it’s 8 in a row doesn’t register with me. That loss in 2004 was a 21-20 third game loss to Tony Healy and that still motivates and sickens me, in equal measure, to this minute.”
Brady appears to have measured his build up to his tenth straight final with precision as he displayed all the credentials in his semi-final triumph over Meath’s Brian Carroll that has helped the Mullaghoran star rise to the pinnacle of world handball. “I was happy enough with the semi-final win against Brian but I’m aware I’ll need to up it considerably for the final. I’m confident I can do that.”
Brady has a winning mentality unequalled in the sport and he has always shown the upmost respect for every opponent. This time around is no different and McCarthy may prove one of his toughest to date. Only five months ago, he became only the third Irish player in history, including Brady and Healy, to secure a USA Open crown. Head to heads between the two finalists have been limited but as yet, McCarthy has been unable to topple Brady. “We’ve met a few times in competition in the past. I don’t know how many times exactly. Despite the fact that some people are predicting him to win, as always I am confident that if I play my best I can win. Whilst Robbie is an excellent player and has beaten everyone else in the sport, he has never beaten me. I believe if I play to the level that I know I am capable off, I don’t expect that statistic to change!”
Brady never looks beyond his next challenge and is solely focussed on retaining his crown. “That is where my focus lies, solely on myself and on playing the best I can. That’s all I can ever ask of myself. Robbie is obviously a very good player. He is on a roll and hasn’t lost since I beat him in the semi-final last year and has won every competition he has entered since then. I’m well aware that it has been a long while since I have faced such a stiff challenge. He will come into the final with a lot of confidence. Anyone who knows Robbie will know that he certainly doesn’t lack confidence. On Saturday I will ask him every physical and mental question that I have asked all of my opponents over my career. I will test his physical fitness to the limit. Because I know deep down that I am ready and prepared for the battle. So may the best man win.”
After reading a summary of Brady’s handballing curriculum vitae and getting a taste of the motivation and confidence that he carries to the arena on Saturday evening, few would give the Mullingar man a chance to taking down the eight time champion. On the other hand McCarthy’s record in the last year would suggest he has a great opportunity. The 23 year old has remained unbeaten both on Irish and American soil in the past twelve months and in that time he has captured the 40×20 Irish Open Nationals, the senior hardball and softball titles in the 60×30 and he followed that up with the US Open title in California last October. A win this time around would elevate him to an envious position that no other has realised.
McCarthy finds himself in a very similar scenario likened to the softball decider last September when he challenged Dublin’s Eoin Kennedy who, like Brady, was pursuing an eighth successive win. Then McCarthy managed to halt the dominance of the St. Brigid’s player so has dealt positively with this situation before. Like Brady, McCarthy is ready for the encounter to commence and is relishing the underdog tag. “I have improved my eating habits; I am sleeping well and training well. I feel as if I’m playing ok and obviously there is room for improvement as there always is. I have not seen Paul playing this year and obviously I am going in as underdog but it is a position I like to be in and I don’t feel any pressure on me. The last time we met I don’t feel as if I played my best in the semi-final of the 40×20 championship and this year I hope to do better and we will see how it goes.”
Brady is in superb athletic shape and possesses the power and offensive attack which very few of the great players have been able to curb in recent times, standing in one corner. In the opposing corner, stands McCarthy who has remained unbeaten inside the last year and has amassed every senior title he has challenged for. McCarthy’s last loss was to Brady’s hands in the semi-final in April 2011 but he has gone on from strength to strength since.
The venue in St. Coman’s, Roscommon, has been sold out for this mouth-watering clash from the moment both players booked their final appearances. Brady is slight favourite to edge one of the most eagerly awaited senior showdowns of recent times as he competes in his tenth consecutive final, while McCarthy has shown he can deliver when it matters and has the titles to prove it.
Sisters act bid to rule the kingdom
Kerry’s Maria Daly and Ashley Prendiville are on course to capture their hat trick of GAA Handball Ladies 40×20 senior doubles this weekend in Roscommon, when they clash with Antrim sisters, Fiona Shannon and Sibeal Gallagher. The duo from the Kingdom came out on top in the same fixture twelve months back when they bounced back from a 21-20 first game loss to run out eventual winners 21-7, 21-8.
The sister act from the St. Paul’s club in Belfast are current world senior doubles champions and have five Irish doubles titles safely tucked away as well as the 2011 USA Open doubles crown. They have been the most successful pairing from the Emerald Isle to date and would dearly love to get their hands on the Irish title for a sixth time.
The Irish ladies game is more competitive today than it has ever been and such is the nature of the competition for honours that the world champions have not been able to get their hands on the cup since 2009.
2011 female player of the year, the affable Daly, who secured both ladies senior singles in both the 40×20 and 60×30 courts is well aware of the calibre of opposition that lie in store at the St. Coman’s venue. “It’s always a competitive game against Antrim and last year it was a tiebreaker so it was very tough. Antrim are so strong and consistent and it is always very difficult to play them. They have been playing together for a number of years and have so many All Ireland doubles titles already. Hopefully it will be a good game.”
The Kerry combination easily accounted for the 60×30 senior doubles winners, Mayo (Amy Corrigan and Pauline Gallagher) 21-6, 21-8 in their semi-final win and are hitting form at the right end of the season. “We have been playing ok together this season. It takes a bit of time to get used to playing doubles so hopefully we’ll keep improving with the more games we play. We were delighted to get through the semi-final because you never know how it will go for you on the day. We have won the All Ireland doubles the last 2 years and hopefully we can play well at the weekend and just keep on improving.”
Shannon at 33 is chasing a fourth senior ladies world title this October and looks to be as driven as ever to secure further silverware in 2012. Alongside her ever reliable partner and sister, Sibeal, who recently became a mother of three, Antrim ousted Cork’s Catriona Casey and Aisling O’Keefe 21-15, 21-12 to advance. “To win the semi-final was a great win for us both considering that Sibeal is just back playing after the birth of her third daughter three and a half months ago. It was a great confidence boost for her in showing that her game was still strong. The two Cork girls played well but Sibeal is a great doubles player who can pick up balls that no one else can and she plays great defensive shots putting opponents under pressure.”
Shannon knows what to expect from the reigning victors from Munster and is trusting that her long term doubles experience with her younger sister will pay dividends. “The Kerry girls beat us in the final last year so we are keen to get the title back again. They are both very good players but I feel they don’t have the same solid partnership that Sibeal and I have which will hopefully give us the edge over them in the final.”
Losing the decider in 2011 in both singles and doubles to Daly, has given Shannon that little added incentive to get her hands on the title in 2012. “Last year was the first time that Sibeal and I had been defeated in the final but this only makes us more determined to win. We have prepared as best as we can for the forthcoming final getting as many good games in from different types of opposition. Hopefully it will all pay off on the day.”
The minor singles final brings together Wexford’s Galen Riordan and Leitrim’s Donal Wrynn, which will get the action started at midday.
Riordan enjoyed an outstanding victory over one of the favourites for the minor cohort in Cork’s Patrick Herlihy in the last four.
Then the Leinster winner showed the character of a champion elect when he dug deep after losing the opener by a fifteen point margin to take the next two games 21-20, 21-17.
He faces a stern test in one of the most gifted minor players to have represented Connaught in recent times in Wrynn. The Leitrim teenager will go into the final in confident mood after he exited the former 15 and under USA junior winner and Ulster champion, Monaghan’s Darren Doherty in three games 12-21, 21-13, 21-11.
FIXTURES: Saturday 24th March 2012: In St. Coman’s, Roscommon
12.00pm: Minor Singles: Wexford (Galen Riordan) v Leitrim (Donal Wrynn)
1.15pm: Ladies SD Final: Kerry (Maria Daly/Ashley Prendiville) v Antrim (Fiona Shannon/Sibeal Gallagher)
3.00pm: Mens Senior Singles Final: Westmeath (Robbie McCarthy) v Cavan (Paul Brady)