In little over three weeks, the various paths that constitute the 2019 O'Neill's All-Ireland Senior Singles Championships will intersect at Kingscourt, that much is certain. What is not – and arguably has never been less - certain is who will emerge from the treacherous trails best placed to stake a claim on this year’s crown.
With three different champions in the last three years, and the top seed not among them, competition in the Men’s event is arguably at an all-time high.
Defending champion Martin Mulkerrins opens his title defence against veteran Kerry man Dominick Lynch at Cappagh on Saturday. Galway’s Mulkerrins – who became the first Connacht player in 31 years to lift the Gael Linn Cup last year – looked to have established himself as the dominant player on the Irish scene, following his All-Ireland victory with a runner-up performance at the World Championships, before returning to very familiar ground to capture the Moycullen Open.
Since then, a shock defeat to Eoin Kennedy at the John Gaffney Memorial, and a narrow semi-final loss to Robbie McCarthy at the Irish Nationals, means that Mulkerrins will begin defence of his All-Ireland crown as the number two seed.
Awaiting the winner will be evergreen Yellowbelly Gavin Buggy, who received a round-of-16 walkover from Wicklow’s Michael Gregan.
Top seed is Clare’s Diarmaid Nash, who joins Mulkerrins on the Cappagh billing as he squares off against Offaly’s David Hope in a bttle of the lefties.
Rapidly becoming Mr Consistent, Nash has been ever present in ranking event finals this season, taking victory in the Golden Gloves and the Gaffney Invitational, and falling just short in the Moycullen Open and Irish Nationals.
Hope – in fine form of late – earned his place in the last 16 with a narrow victory over Roscommon’s Rikki O’Gara last week, but will have his work cut out if he is to halt Nash’s assault on the only major domestic title to elude him.
The winner of the Nash/Hope encounter will face either Eoin Kennedy or Joe McCann, who actually begin the weekend’s proceedings when they face off at Curraghboy on Friday night.
Dubliner Kennedy – who recently celebrated his 40th birthday – turned back the clock when defeating then number one ranked Mulkerrins at Ballaghderreen in early January. Four years Kennedy’s junior, McCann is still searching for his first singles victory over the 2002 champion, and will know that if he is to buck the trend this week, he will need to be at his best. It’s long odds against, but still, there’s a first time for everything.
Though Nash may be top seed, nobody is coming in hotter than three-time champion Robbie McCarthy. Back to his hottest form in capturing the Irish Nationals last month, at 31, the Westmeath man has vast experience and is playing as well as ever. Facing McCarthy will be Antrim’s talented right-hander Owen McKenna, with McCarthy fancied to progress.
The Orchard County’s Charly Shanks is the final former champion in the field, and he begins his assault on a second title with an encounter with Tipperary’s Ger Coonan. Recently becoming a father for the third time, Shanks contemplated retirement before the desire to compete took hold once more.
Coonan earned his last-16 spot with a comprehensive victory over Pat Conway, and will be looking to take advantage of any ring rust Shanks may be suffering.
The round of 16 action is completed with a mouth-watering double-header at Cullohill, Co Laois. First on the card is Kilkenny’s Patrick Funchion taking on Clare’s Colin Crehan. Crehan – a minor singles champion in 2013 – has taken his game to a new level this year and is something of a dark horse for this year’s championship. Funchion will relish the opportunity to throw a spanner in the works, however, and will have big scalps on his mind.
Next up at Cullohill is arguably the tie of the round, with Peter Funchion squaring off against Cork’s Brendan Fleming. The younger of the Funchion brothers, Peter has had the edge on his brother of late, capturing the Kilkenny and Leinster Senior Singles titles, but in Fleming, he will face an opponent enjoying the Indian Summer to end all others.
At 34, Fleming reached the All-Ireland semi-finals for the first time in 2017, a feat he repeated a year later, knocking out Robbie McCarthy in a quarter-final upset considered among the greatest in the game’s history.
There are three Ladies Senior Singles round-of-16 ties up for decision this weekend as well. Though the All-Ireland favourites have yet to enter the fray, Kildare’s Leah Doyle and Niamh Dunne from Laois battle for a shot at defending champion Martina McMahon.
Rebel Aisling O’Keefe will have to overcome Clodagh Nash of Clare if she is to face off against doubles partner Catriona Casey, and Roscommon’s Fiona Tully awaits the winner of Kilkenny’s Ciara Mahon and Doireann Murphy of Clare in what promises to be the match of the round.