The 17&U nationals will provide a great standard of handball this weekend and could easily serve up some of the most exhilarating action in Croke Park. The boys division will see proven stars such as Gavin Kelly, Cian Dunning and Caleb Donnellan bidding for glory along with talented players such as Matthew Coughlan, Shea Munroe, Tomas O'Connor and Travis Gibbons. It's noticeable that Kilkenny star Anthony Clifford isn't featuring in this competition due to hurling commitments but last year's All Ireland U16 singles champion will surely be back for the World Championships later in the year. In the girls 17&U division, the top four seeds are very familiar with one another at this stage and are capable of beating each other at any time.
Carmel Kelleher, Laura Duff, Katie Jordan and Caislin Tracey will all have aspirations of going all the way this weekend but none of the other four quarter finalists can be ruled out. Holly Byrne, Claire Minogue, Emily McGinnity and Jenny Saunders are all formidable players and this grade probably looks deeper than the others in terms of quality.
Boys 17&U preview
Gavin Kelly tops the bill in the boys 17&U nationals as the Galway star brings natural talent and personality to the table and he knows how to perform on the big stage. Gavin has been making a big impact in all codes of handball for several years and he'll be hard to stop in Croke Park this weekend. His big win last year came in the All Ireland U16 wallball singles championship where he defeated Shea Munroe in a tiebreaker and Gavin is capable of producing the same level of performance in 40x20. He was runner up to Anthony Clifford in the 15&U 40x20 nationals final in 2023. As to who can deny him the Irish Nationals trophy, there are six other players who will be contesting the Team Ireland spot, with former all Ireland U14 singles champion Paul Rodgers having to withdraw. This leaves Tomas O'Connor through to Sundays semi finals where he will meet the winner of Gavin and Sligo's Travis Gibbons. The Cork player has been a great competitor at the top level in recent years, reaching the All Ireland U16 singles final in 2022, and won't be far away this weekend, while Travis has also done well in recent seasons and has partnered Gavin to doubles success in the Softball nationals.
The bottom half of the draw is wide open and any of the four players could come through to reach Sunday's final. The quarter final meeting of Cian Dunning and Caleb Donnellan features two players who've been producing brilliant form in the one wall code but have all the skills to star in the 40x20 nationals this weekend. They've both built up massive experience in tournaments around the country and will be coming to Croke Park with high expectations of winning the title. They've both won All Ireland 40x20 doubles titles in the past, Cian alongside Tomas O'Connor for Cork at U14 level and Caleb alongside Gavin Kelly in U15 doubles two years ago. The winner of this match will take on Matthew Coughlan or Shea Munroe in the semi final and this promises to be another interesting clash.
Matthew comes from the famous Coughlan family in County Clare and reached last year's All Ireland U16 singles final where he lost to Anthony Clifford. He also won the plate in the 15&U nationals last year and could be ready to step up to lift the 17&U title at Croke Park this weekend.
Like several others in this grade, Shea has made a name for himself in the one wall arena in the last couple of years but despite his county hurling and football commitments he's found time to make his return to the 40x20 code this season. The Tyrone player is a skillful left hander who could trouble anybody and his encounter with Matthew could produce a great battle.
This grade is wide open and there's a golden opportunity for these seven players to step up to the plate and grab one of the major 40x20 national titles and join Team Ireland for the World Championships.
QF 1: Gavin Kelly (Abbeyknockmoy) vs Travis Gibbons (Collooney)
QF 2: Tomas O'Connor (Boherbue) w/o Paul Rodgers (Tuamgraney)
QF 3: Caleb Donnellan (Abbeyknockmoy) vs Cian Dunning (Conna)
QF 4: Shea Munroe (Carrickmore) vs Matthew Coughlan (Clooney)
Girls 17&U preview
Carmel Kelleher and Laura Duff have scooped the last two Irish nationals titles at 15&U and the last two All Ireland 40x20 U16 singles titles, so they're deservedly seeded one and two for the 17&U nationals crown this weekend. Carmel has also captured the U16 wallball singles title for the last two years, while Laura has lifted the All Ireland 60x30 U16 singles title for two years in a row. Their five head to head meetings in 40x20 and 60x30 since 2022 show Laura ahead by 3 wins to 2. Carmel is a wonderful talent and remains humble despite her achievements and she'll be fancied by many to secure the Team Ireland spot on Sunday evening.
Laura's eleven national titles in the last two years is an impressive haul and last summer she became only the third female player in history to end her All Ireland U16 championship career with four gold medals across 40x20 and 60x30. Despite all the success that the Cork and Tyrone girls have carved out for themselves, they are by no means guaranteed to make it through to Sunday evening's final.
Katie Jordan has claimed the Irish wallball nationals titles at 15&U and 17&U in the last two years and an All Ireland 40x20 U15 singles triumph in 2022. And in 2023 she claimed the silver medal in both the 40x20 and 60x30 U16 singles championships. The Kilkenny girl possesses delightful skills and is a really slick player when she hits form. Katie however faces a tough quarter final assignment against another Kilkenny girl Holly Byrne who is a match for anybody when she clicks. Holly has enjoyed plenty of success in her underage career and will arrive in Dublin with hopes of winning the competition outright.
The most keenly contested quarter final could turn out to be the one featuring Caislin Tracey and Claire Manogue, who had a great battle in the 15&U nationals a year ago in Galmoy. Claire is the youngest player in this group and could have played at 15&U again if it wasn't for the Team Ireland rule. But she's well capable of stepping up and challenging for 17&U honours following a stunning 12 months in which she gained All Ireland U15 singles success in 40x20 and 60x30 and topped it off by winning the 15&U wallball nationals title. Claire then ended the year with a few notable tournament wins, including the Golden Gloves and Tim Healy Memorial. Nonetheless she will go in as slight underdog against Tyrone's Caislin Tracey who is a brilliant competitor and is never far away when the big titles are being handed out. This is a tough grade but Caislin certainly has the potential to go all the way. She has two great hands, superb movement and is now adding a cutting edge to her play. Caislin is a former U15 singles champion in 60x30 and U16 doubles champion in 40x20 and she's recorded some great tournament results already this season and reached the She's Ace final two weeks ago.
Emily McGinnity and Jenny Saunders complete the girls 17&U line-up and both bring quality to the table. Emily made a welcome return to the handball stage last year and has been edging her way closer to the leading players in her age group. She faces a difficult opening hurdle in Carmel Kelleher but has the ability and style to trouble the top seed. Jenny is a former All Ireland U15 doubles champion and U16 doubles runner up and will undoubtedly cause problems for Laura Duff in Saturday night's quarter final fixture. She brings the number of Kilkenny players in the quarter final line-up to three.
Overall this will be a great competition and it will take something special to win it outright.
QF 1: Carmel Kelleher (Boherbue) vs Emily McGinnity (Monaghan Harps)
QF 2: Claire Minogue (Tuamgraney) vs Caislin Tracey (Greencastle)
QF 3: Katie Jordan (Kilfane) vs Holly Byrne (Clogh)
QF 4: Jenny Saunders (Windgap) vs Laura Duff (Loughmacrory)