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​First-time finalist Mulkerrins meets softball superpower McCarthy

Before a ball was struck or a draw made in the 2024 Senior Softball Singles, the smart money was always on a McCarthy v Mulkerrins final – but maybe not, with the utmost respect, Diarmuid Mulkerrins, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.

Diarmuid’s older brother, Martin, the former All-Ireland 40x20 Senior Singles champ and current world Open Singles title-holder, made the Senior Singles final last year, where he lost out to McCarthy, and having previously won the Irish Softball Nationals, he has established himself as the number one rival vying to take the crown from the undisputed current king of the big alley.

However, the way the seedings panned out, Martin and Robbie met in the semi-final last Saturday, with the Mullingar man coming through in a tiebreaker after a titanic tussle which showcased all of the great aspects to the wonderful traditional code, with both men covering the large court expertly and combining power with deft touches.

For a fleeting moment, after Martin won the second game 21-15 and as his younger brother warmed up for his own semi-final, the impossible – two brothers meeting in an All-Ireland Senior Singles final – seemed possible.

But McCarthy was stronger in the tiebreaker and secured his passage to yet another final, having played in each of them since making his first against the great Eoin Kennedy in 2009.

That undoubted disappointment didn’t deter Diarmuid, however. As well as the chance of playing his brother in the final, Diarmuid found himself in another highly unusual situation in that he had played his opponent, Sligo’s Cormac Finn, just five days earlier in the Connacht Intermediate Singles final.

In that game at St Coman’s, Roscommon, Mulkerrins (25) dropped the opening game 21-20 in that provincial final before coming roaring back to win the next two and advance to the All-Ireland semi-final.

When he and rising star Finn clashed again, however, Mulkerrins upped his game at Croke Park and won it in two, 21-15, 21-9. It was a highly impressive feat, made even more so when he defeated Waterford’s Anthony Fitzgerald the following day to secure his place in the Intermediate Singles final.

So, the stage is set for an interesting final with a compelling back story. The gutsy Mulkerrins won’t lack motivation – what player worth their salt would in an All-Ireland final? – but he is very much the underdog against the Mullingar man, whose supreme talent as a handballer has long been established.

McCarthy exhibits a complete mastery of the softball game; he combines speed on the ball with soft hands from mid to front court, which means he can negate hard-hitters, taking the sting out of their power games, while also packing enough punch to drive opponents back when he is on the front foot.

Truly, McCarthy, who won the Intermediate Singles himself 18 years ago when defeating Cavan’s Patrick Finnegan in the final, is one of the greats of the game. His softball skills were forged in repeated finals against Eoin Kennedy, who showed in the Senior Doubles final recently that even at the age of 45, few in the country could touch him.

However, Mulkerrins is a very, very good player too. He has proven himself a very resilient competitor in his career to date, a handballer with craft beyond his years. His conditioning is superb, he has two excellent hands and his big-game temperament is not in doubt.

He has the chance to make history, too; to win both Intermediate and Senior Singles titles in the same year would be truly extraordinary, although he has a lot of handball to play yet to win either and the Moycullen man will certainly not be getting ahead of himself.

While Diarmuid has been in the shadow of his older brother to some extent, he has amassed considerable experience at home and abroad.

In 2017, he won the All-Ireland Minor Softball Singles and was given a hero’s welcome home; a photo was taken of Mulkerrins and Galway’s triumphant senior hurling captain David Burke on that magical weekend, both cradling the spoils of war.

He has gone on to compete in Senior Doubles finals in both codes, excelling on the big occasion, and has competed well on the Race4Eight tour during a recent extended sojourn in the United States as well as in the USHA Collegiates during his college years.

Wins over Rocky Reilly (Tipperary) and Keith Armstrong (Wexford) propelled him to the penultimate stage where he got the better of Finn for the second time in a few days and he will relish the opportunity to take on McCarthy with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

That said, the champion will not loosen his grasp on the cup easily and anything other than a Westmeath win would be regarded as a seismic shock.

An intriguing affair is in store; just as in the ladies final, both of the underdogs will hope their arrival in the final signifies a changing of the guard against decorated champions of renown.