There is some terrific handball in store in the Boys and Girls 15&U grades at the Irish junior nationals this weekend and the additional prize of a place on Team Ireland for the winners will make it even more thrilling for players and spectators. The Team Ireland bonus prize means that everyone in the draw must still be aged 15 or under when the World Championships take place at the end of October. There's a really good spread of counties and provinces featuring in both events and the two 15&U titles are very much up for grabs as these are both competitive grades.
BOYS 15&U preview
The tie of the round in Saturday's boys quarterfinal programme is undoubtedly the meeting of Clare's Sean Considine and Galway's Oisín O'Neachtain which could have been the final based on their previous records but the draw perhaps wasn't kind to them. Sean captured the All Ireland U14 singles title last year in 40x20 and 60x30 which was a fabulous double achievement, while Oisin lifted the All Ireland U14 one wall title in 2022 and followed that up with the Irish nationals 13&U title and the U14 doubles title in 40x20 last year. They're unlucky to be meeting in a quarter final now after all they've achieved but it promises to be a cracker and the result could certainly go either way. Sean is an attacking player who loves to finish rallies off with his left sidearm and when he's on song he is a serious player with a brilliant serve and kill game. Oisin meanwhile is a skillful player who plays with a lot of composure and knows how to place his shots to perfection and is very hard to finish off in a rally. This will be a clash of contrasting styles and will make for enthralling viewing. The top half of the draw is undoubtedly the hardest half to come through as the winner of Sean and Oisin will have to face Bertie Donohue or Tarlach Tracey in the semi final.
Bertie may be one of the younger quarter finalists with another year to go in this age group but he's already built up huge experience in his career to date. He's enjoyed a lot of success and is very well known in juvenile handball circles. Bertie is the All Ireland one wall U14 singles champion and reached the All Ireland U14 singles finals in both 40x20 and 60x30 courts in 2023 a year early. He'll be favourite to lift the U14 All Ireland singles titles in 2024 and will be a tough nut to crack again this weekend. The Inis Mor player will have his hands full with Tyrone's Tarlach Tracey who's been competing strongly in his age group over the last few years and lifted the 13&U plate title at the nationals last year. He also ran Sean Considine very close in the U14 60x30 singles semi final in 2023 and is guaranteed to be a tough opponent for Bertie. Whoever emerges from the top half of this draw to reach the final will certainly have earned their place in the decider.
The bottom half of the draw also features four talented lads in Jake O'Neill, Tadhg O'Connor, Rory Crosse and Ciaran McCrystal and a place in the nationals final is very much an attainable target for all four. Jake reached the 13&U nationals final last year when he beat Ciaran in a tight semi final tiebreaker in Cullohill and it could well turn out to be a repeat semi final meeting this year. The talented Kells player eventually lost that nationals final to Oisin O'Neachtain but he showed great potential and could easily build on that breakthrough a year on. Jake, who secured the All Ireland U14 doubles title in 60x30 last summer, will not get things his own way against Cork's Tadhg O'Connor who has a powerful left sidearm and knows how to finish. Tadhg will have another year at 15&U but will definitely fancy his chances of progressing in this one.
Ciaran McCrystal meanwhile was unlucky to sustain a serious arm injury last year during his All Ireland U14 40x20 semi final encounter with Sean Considine which he only lost in a tiebreaker. Ciaran had earlier shown top form to beat Sean in the Irish nationals quarter final and golden gloves final but his season was then cut short by injury, so it's great to see him back competing in 2024 and if he clicks he's got the tools to beat any of the other contenders. However Ciaran has a tough battle ahead with Tipperary's Rory Crosse who reached the All Ireland U14 doubles final in 60x30 last year and can certainly strike the ball sweetly.
It's all to play for in the boys 15&U division and the double prize of Irish Nationals champion and Team Ireland member will ensure that all eight players are ready to give it everything.
QF 1: Tarlach Tracey (Greencastle) vs Bertie Donohue (Inis Mór)
QF 2: Oisín O'Neachtain (Micheál Breathnach) vs Sean Considine (Clooney)
QF 3: Jake O'Neill (Kells, Kilkenny) vs Tadgh O'Connor (Boherbue)
QF 4: Rory Crosse (Cashel) vs Ciaran McCrystal (Loughmacrory)
GIRLS 15&U preview...
Amy Brosnan will be the favourite for the Girls 15&U Irish nationals title this weekend but the Cork girl knows she will need to be at the top of her game for the challenges ahead. Amy warmed up nicely for the nationals by lifting the She's Ace title in this age group two weeks ago in Croke Park but she is better known for her history making exploits at U14 level as she captured a stunning four All Ireland U14 singles titles, winning two in a row in 40x20 and 60x30. The talented Ballydesmond girl will be seeking her first Irish nationals triumph this weekend after losing the 13&U final two years ago by a single point in a tiebreaker and she'll be fancied to do it this time. However Amy will have to see off Katie Kane to get through her quarter final round on Saturday and it won't be easy against a young player who's been flying the flag superbly for Leitrim in numerous competitions over the last couple of years. Katie has acquitted herself very well on the national stage and will be ready to have a crack at the top seed.
Another player in the top half of the draw who's been making a name for herself in handball circles is Galway's Freya Donnellan who has been competing very strongly across the codes for the last couple of years and will arrive in Croke Park this weekend as a serious title contender. Freya recently travelled to America and captured singles and doubles titles at the US junior nationals, so she's coming into the nationals in great form. Freya certainly knows she has a tough quarter final battle on her hands as she will be meeting Clare's Ellie Frost in a repeat of the Claregalway juvenile tournament final in December which was won by Ellie in a tiebreaker (11-8). That Claregalway score shows how tight this quarter final is likely to be and Ellie will rightly fancy her chances of progressing to the semis in Croke Park.
The bottom half of the draw will see Niamh Drennan, Aoibhin Fallon, Ella Casey and Lucy McCullagh battle it out for a place in the 15&U girls final. Niamh, sister of brilliant former juvenile handballer Billy, enjoyed a fantastic year in all codes in 2023, reaching the All Ireland U14 singles final against Amy Brosnan in 40x20, winning the U14 doubles title in 60x30 and finally lifting the Irish wallball nationals title at 13&U and the All Ireland U14 wallball singles gold medal. Niamh will take on Antrim's Aoibhin Fallon in her quarter final tie this weekend and she will be wary of the threat posed by Aoibhin who is part of a new crop of talented players being brought through by Antrim to compete at the top level. Aoibhin can push Niamh all the way in this one.
Number 2 seed Lucy McCullagh is another strong candidate for the girls 15&U title as she has already amassed nine national titles over the last two years to establish herself as one of the most prolific juvenile handballers around. Last year she added All Ireland U16 doubles titles in both codes to her list of honours and she's also a former one wall U14 singles champion. Lucy's quarter final opponent Ella Casey is an All Ireland champion herself after lifting the U14 doubles title for Clare in 40x20 last year, so she represents a tough hurdle. While Amy Brosnan deservedly goes into the weekend as favourite to secure the Team Ireland spot, all eight quarter finalists are here on merit and nobody can be ruled out.
QF 1: Amy Brosnan (Ballydesmond) vs Katie Kane (Fenagh)
QF 2: Ellie Frost (Kilkishen) vs Freya Donnellan (Abbeyknockmoy)
QF 3: Niamh Drennan (Galmoy) vs Aoibhin Fallon (St.Galls)
QF 4: Ella Casey (Toonagh) vs Lucy McCullagh (Loughmacrory)