As Cheltenham fever slowly releases the nation from its annual grasp, the focus shifts to Kingscourt where the remaining runners in the O’Neills Senior Singles race are approaching the penultimate hurdle. Ears pinned back, and with the grandstand roars getting louder, the finishing line is almost in sight.
First on the bill are the Ladies’ semi-finals, playing concurrently, with opening blows scheduled for 2pm.
Top seed Catriona Casey showed no mercy when ruthlessly dispatching doubles partner Aisling O’Keefe in the quarter-finals, allowing just two points over the two games. Standing between Casey and a seventh successive final appearance is Roscommon’s Fiona Tully who came through a tough encounter against Ciara Mahon [Kilkenny]. In three-time champion Casey, however, Tully faces a different task altogether and is going to need the performance of her life if she is to deny the Rebel a seventh Senior Singles showdown.
Defending champion Martina McMahon and former holder Aisling Reilly also recorded comprehensive quarter-final victories, conceding just eight points and six points against Leah Doyle [Kildare] and Sinead Meagher [Tipperary] respectively. This is potentially the game of the weekend.
Limerick’s McMahon has improved immeasurably over the past two years as she has risen to the number one spot while Belfast native Reilly has been slowly rebuilding her game after a long injury lay-off. A face-off between arguably the two hardest hitters in the ladies’ game, expect this to be more of a heavy artillery battle than tactical warfare. As defending and world champion, McMahon is favoured, but Reilly is eyeing a third title and will very much fancy her chances.
Following the ladies’ semi-finals, the men take to the court.
Diarmaid Nash was forced to dig relatively deep to overcome veteran Dubliner Eoin Kennedy last weekend. The Tuamgraney clubman now faces Kilkenny’s Patrick Funchion who received a walkover from Charly Shanks [Armagh] in the quarter-final, and will now compete in his first Senior Singles semi-final.
A somewhat unlikely semi-finalist at the outset, Funchion recorded an impressive victory over highly fancied Clareman Colin Crehan in the round-of-16, and would’ve liked his chances at toppling the 2017 champion had a shoulder injury not forced Shanks to withdraw. Nash, however, has consistently shown why he is the top ranked player in the draw, and has been ever-present in the final match of every tournament he has entered this season.
Nash – many people’s tip to capture the Gael Linn cup for the first time this year – will be favourite to see off the Kells club man, but Funchion enjoys the underdog tag and he knows that Nash could prove the most valuable scalp of his career to date. Either way, the loser here will go out on his shield.
Finally, we have the mouth-watering clash between defending champion Martin Mulkerrins and reigning Irish Nationals champion Robbie McCarthy. Galway’s Mulkerrins has blown hot and cold in recent months – as he is prone to do – and comes into this match largely untested in the championship to date having easily dispatched Gavin Buggy [Wexford] in the previous round.
McCarthy faced much trickier opposition in the form of Peter Funchion – younger brother of Patrick – however the three-time champion looks to be back to his best, comfortably overcoming what many thought would prove to be a very dangerous opponent. No strangers, Mulkerrins and McCarthy met at the same stage in the 2017 championship, with the Westmeath man staging an incredible second game comeback when facing match point to deny Mulkerrins a first final appearance.
McCarthy came out on top in their Irish Nationals semi-final this year, while the Galway man prevailed on home soil in the Moycullen Open at the end of last year when he was in irresistible form. It’s been a good week for favourite backers at Prestbury Park, but this one is really too close to call; don’t be surprised to see handball’s equivalent of a photo finish.
LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST PREVIEW OF THE O'NEILL'S SENIOR SINGLES SEMI-FINALS HERE: