Handball big guns shooting for title deciding spots
30 March 2012
Antrim's two most successful female handballing exponents, Aisling Reilly and Fiona Shannon will go head to head this weekend for a place in the 2012 GAA Handball senior final in early April.
Home advantage for both players holds no advantage this time around but eight times champion, Shannon will be in buoyant form after regaining the doubles gong just seven days ago.
Three time world singles champ, Shannon collected an impressive sixth GAA Handball 40x20 senior doubles title alongside her sister, Sibeal Gallagher in Roscommon when they edged the 2011 victors, Kerry's Maria Daly and Ashley Prendiville 21-17, 17-21, 21-16.
This weekend's opponent and club mate, Reilly is still chasing her first All-Ireland senior singles medal but has scooped up nearly every other major honour within the game, including victories at the Irish Nationals in 2008 and the US Nationals and US Open in California in 2010.
Like Shannon, Reilly also enters the arena in confident form after ousting the most promising young female player on the planet in Cork's Catriona Casey in three games 12-21, 21-14, 21-9 in the quarter finals. Reilly is regarded as one of the strongest players in the world stage and her physical power remains one of her key assets.
Having missed out on most of 2011 due to injury, she has prepared meticulously twelve months on to bring her game back to her accustomed high levels. "My preparations this year are going really well, I'm getting great games a few times a week and I'm playing really well at the minute and I feel strong. This is a major year for every handballer with the Worlds coming up, so although I'm only looking at things on a day to day, game to game basis, ultimately this is the start of my preparation for a massive year," said Reilly.
"The win over Catriona was great for me as she tested me physically and mentally and forced me to pull out all the stops to beat her which gives me great confidence as I finished the second and third games off strongly. I knew she was going to be tough, especially having won the USHA Junior Nationals title and the US Collegiate titles very recently but I was confident that if I played well, I would win" commented the former Irish and US Nationals Champion.
Reilly is well aware of the calibre that her St. Paul's colleague, brings to the court having watched her dominate every junior age group to eventually reach the pinnacle of world handball in 2003. Nevertheless, Reilly has all the credentials and titles to topple any player on her day and she's relishing the duel at the Belfast venue. "I always look forward to playing Fiona as we have had many great battles over the years and I have no doubt that this will be the same. I'm hoping that the two tough games I have had under my belt from the previous rounds will stand by me."
The winner of the Reilly/Shannon encounter will then advance for a final meeting with either current champion, Kerry's Maria Daly, who is chasing a three-in-a-row in the event or Roscommon's rapidly improving star, Marianna Rushe, with that duo opening an intriguing Senior semi finals triple bill in Cappagh, Limerick.
The Mens Open Doubles semi finals will then complete that programme with all eyes on Cavan's Paul Brady after his incredible singles triumph last weekend. He will be hot favourite alongside Michael Finnegan to progress to the men's open doubles final when they collide with 2011 senior softball champions, Wexford's Barry Goff and Colin Keeling.
Just seven days ago, Brady exhibited yet again why most handballing pundits regard him as the greatest Irish player to have graced the 40x20 alley. Last Saturday afternoon, he captured his ninth senior singles gold medal in total and eighth in succession when he obliterated the highly gifted and talented Robbie McCarthy.
He will be bolstered by the ever reliable Finnegan who boasts two world senior doubles titles, one with Brady in 2003 and the other with Dublin's Eoin Kennedy in 2009. "We had a tough draw and had to beat two great young lads, Peter and Patrick Funchion from Kilkenny (21-12, 21-9) and then beat Limerick's Seamus O'Carroll and CJ Fitzpatrick (21-3, 21-11) to get here but we've got over two great matches," said Finnegan.
"Paul had a serious win last weekend and it was probably one of his best performances but we've Wexford's Keeling and Goff now in the semis this weekend and they're a great partnership. Keeling is very strong on the right and Goff misses nothing on the left. They're the big alley champions too so they'll be hard to beat. We're looking forward to it especially after a month's break since our quarter final win and when you make the long spin to Cappagh, you're only going down for one thing and that's the win."
The winners will face either Meath's Brian Carroll and Tom Sheridan or Mayo's Dessie Keegan and Joe McCann in the April 7th final. Those combinations have been in the last 3 finals between them with Keegan and McCann the last partnership to have beaten Brady and Finnegan, in the 2009 final, while Sheridan and Carroll lost out to the Cavan pairing in last year's decider.
GAA Handball 40x20 All Ireland Open Semi-Finals:
Saturday 31st March 2012, in Cappagh, Limerick:
1.30pm: LSS SF1: Kerry (Maria Daly) v Roscommon (Marianna Rushe)
2.45pm: MSD SF1: Cavan (Paul Brady/Michael Finnegan) v Wexford (Barry Goff/Colin Keeling)
4.00pm: MSD SF2: Meath (Brian Carroll/Tom Sheridan) v Mayo (Dessie Keegan/Joe McCann)
Saturday 31st March 2012, in St. Paul's, Antrim:
5pm: LSS SF2: Aisling Reilly (Antrim) v Fiona Shannon (Antrim)