While many interesting storylines emerged from an action-packed weekend at the Irish Wallball Nationals, nothing can top Fiona Tully’s victory in the final of the Elite Women’s grade, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.
The 25-year-old Roscommon woman landed the biggest title of her career as she saw off Ciana Ní Churraoín in the semi-final and then enjoyed her first major win over Catriona Casey in the final.
And adding to the sense of history was that Tully also found time to line out with Kilbride in a Senior Championship win over St Brigid’s on the Sunday, between her handball semi-final and final.
Both the handball and football resulted in wins which were more comfortable than expected, too.
“It feels surreal. It’s something I’ve been striving for the last few years but I didn’t think coming into this tournament that I would win the way I did,” Fiona said.
“I knew if I got past my first round that would be a good start and if I met Ciana in the semi, that would be really difficult because she beat me in the 40x20 (Senior Singles semi-final).
“I think I really just wanted to play and get off the court as soon as possible because I knew what was ahead of me for the day. I did play as best as I could against her and I did close it out within 15 minutes.
“That was something I never, ever expected, to beat her by that much. I always felt it was going to be a hard game.”
Going in against Casey, the most decorated female handballer in the world, has proved daunting for Tully but this time, she was determined to focus on her own game.
“Having to play Catriona again in the final, my plan was to give it everything, not fear anything, because every time I do play it’s like, ‘who am I coming up against?’… I didn’t think about who I was playing this time, I just gave it my all.
“It was level at 6-all and I went up 10-6 but I knew it wasn’t over. I then went up about 16-9 but Catriona is so consistent, she can always come back, it’s never over with her.”
There were emotional scenes afterwards as Fiona and her friends and family savoured her breakthrough victory. Last November, Fiona’s mother Mary, who was heavily involved in handball administration, sadly passed away.
“Even till the last ace, 24-11, I still didn’t even think it was going to happen because Catriona is always so good and always comes back so to win it was pretty emotional to be honest. Even Dad was very emotional because it was my first senior title and then Mam not being there, it kind of got to him so it was pretty emotional,” Fiona said.
Combining football and handball is not easy – Fiona also plays for the Roscommon senior county team – but on this occasion, she felt she had no option and planned accordingly.
"Looking back now, it was probably a silly decision but thank God it all worked out. I try to split myself evenly between handball and football but I always take handball more seriously. But this time I knew I’d just have to do both because the football match was literally in Kilglass and what else was I going to be doing?
“My handball game was over and I didn’t want to just go to the football and just sit there, I wanted to be doing something. I didn’t even think about the handball game at all when I was at the football so it was great.
“It was the first round of the Senior Championship, we were playing St Brigid’s. They got to the league final this year and they beat us last year in the first round of the championship. It was a really important game for us, we needed to win our first game. We thought it was going to be really close, we kind of ran away with it in the end.
“We didn’t expect that at all, that was a big shock. So it was a fairly good weekend in terms of scores for handball and for football.
“I had known for a while I was going to be playing handball and football on the Sunday provided I won my handball quarter-final on the Saturday. I just tried to manage it to make sure I had enough water and my nutrition and had good recovery sessions on the Saturday to make sure I’d be okay for Sunday.
“When I went on to the court for the final on Sunday, I was just hoping I was going to be okay but when I started playing, I knew I was fine. My energy was there, 100pc, and I didn’t let any doubts creep in.”
Beating the likes of Ní Churraoín and Casey, world-class handballers, made this victory extra special.
“It’s great to get a win over Catriona. She has beaten me in several finals, I have given up on counting them, there have been an awful lot so it’s fairly good to just get one win. Catriona is an unreal player, you can’t take that away from her, she’s very consistent. To even get one win was great but hopefully there will be more.
“I was always in awe of her and thinking of what a good player she was and not thinking about my own game. I’ve gone past that, I just wanted to play my own game and not get sucked into somebody else’s game.”
With this major title under her belt, Fiona now hopes to push on – and there is the small matter of the Roscommon ladies Senior Football Championship to attend to, too.
“For handball, it’s really to be more consistent in my game. I’d like to try to push up the rankings and win some more titles in the 40x20 and the 60x30. With the Worlds coming up next year, everyone’s goal is going to be something similar so I’d like to push on for that.
“For football, as I said before, we were in seven finals already, we’ve won five out of the seven. This year, we are trying to get to an eighth Senior Championship final, if we could get back into it and win a county title, it would be a dream. It’s going to be very tough this year, it’s a really tough grade.”