For the third successive year, Dublin’s Eoin Kennedy will have to overcome the challenge of Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy if he is to retain the M DONNELLY GAA Handball All Ireland Open 60×30 Softball title.
Kennedy has dominated the elite bracket since he first captured the most sought after piece of silverware in the men’s game in 2002. A win for the 31 year old this Saturday at Abbeylara would grant him his eighth in a row and ninth in total, ranking him second in the overall standings, since the series began in 1925.
Only Kilkenny’s Ducksy Walsh has secured more 60×30 gold medals with an astonishing 16 to his credit, which included 13 straight wins between 1985 and 1997. Paddy Perry achieved eight on the trot from 1930-1937 but the Roscommon man never got his hands on title number 9.
The affable Kennedy off the court is one of the most competitive and focused players on it and his all round physical attributes and mental toughness combined with natural talent has meant that he has remained at the apex.
23 year old McCarthy did manage to push Kennedy close twelve months back when he lost out 21-20, 21-15. That was a huge step forward from his 2009 experience, when he bowed out easily in single figures 21- 9, 21-7. Mullingar’s McCarthy has yet to get the better of Kennedy in softball. He has taken senior honours in 2011 at the 40×20 Irish Nationals in April and in the hardball code in June, in a competition where Kennedy lost out in the semi-final to Limerick’s Seamus O’Carroll.
McCarthy’s recent form has witnessed a 21-6, 21-7 win over 2003 champ, Meath’s Tom Sheridan in the quarter final and a third game mauling of Wexford’s Barry Goff 21-7 in the semi-final, which would suggest he has narrowed the gap to Kennedy.
Looking forward to his third consecutive final, McCarthy said, “I’m healthy and in good condition and I have trained very hard all year for the softball title. It was my target at the start of the year to get back to another final with Eoin and now that I’m there, I can look forward to it.”
“I’m fitter than last year and have worked harder than before to get back to the final. This is the title that I’ve always wanted to win growing up as it’s the Irish traditional game.”
Conversely, no one in the 60×30 cohort relishes a challenge like Kennedy and he has been the most consistent softballer in the country since beating Walsh nine years ago. He relishes the big final nights and as customary, Kennedy has looked like the complete package as the championship finally has drawn near. His athletic ability and experience have improved over the years and he still possesses that killer instinct which gives him the favourite’s tag once more.
Mayo’s Dessie Keegan who looked unstoppable at times in his last eight win 21-6, 21-10 over Ducksy Walsh found it gruelling against Kennedy in the last four.
“I’m delighted with the win over Dessie as he has been in great form all summer and was looking like a real threat. It definitely went more smoothly than I expected. I played very well and managed to dominate the inside court and put him on the back foot from the start,” he said.
Making history is not something that Kennedy has wasted any time assessing, at least for the interim. “To be honest, at this point, it’s of little relevance to me. I am treating Saturday’s final as just another match that I need to prepare for as well as possible. Of course, it would be great to achieve the 8 in a row and 9 titles overall but I am certainly not allowing it to affect my focus for the final with Robbie.”
This will be their fourth meeting in as many years and Kennedy is well aware of what’s in store. “Robbie is an amazing young player with perhaps the best, most skilful pair of hands in the game. We’ve met in the last two finals and also in the quarter-final of the previous year’s championship and he has been improving year on year. From my perspective, I know I am going to have to play my very best handball to beat him.”
In the opening match of the Abbeylara programme, last year’s minor champion, Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins is in action against Kildare’s Niall O’Connor.
Both players have stood out in the junior grades to date but Mullkerrins is the favourite to capture a striking third minor title having outscored Limerick’s Padraig O’ Carroll in both the 40×20 and 60×30 minor finals in 2010.
Mulkerrins advanced to the final with a two game win over Limerick’s Eamon Davern 21-8, 21-17, while recently crowned minor hardball champion, O’Connor, from the Leixlip club, looked in menacing form as he easily accounted for Ulster champion, Monaghan’s Terry McElvaney, 21-1, 21-5.
Preceding the senior final, Roscommon’s Aenghus Cunningham and Chris Doolin will go head to head with Meath’s Gary McConnell and Peter Reilly for the Intermediate doubles title.
Saturday 3rd September (With AISS Final), in Abbeylara, Longford:
1pm: Minor Singles Final: Kildare (Niall O’Connor) v Galway (Martin Mulkerrins)
2.15pm: Intermediate Doubles Final: Roscommon (Aenghus Cunningham/Chris Doolin) v Meath (Gary McConnell/Peter Reilly)
4pm: Open Senior Singles Final: Dublin (Eoin Kennedy) v Westmeath (Robbie McCarthy)