With just a fortnight to go to the Finals Festival at Kingscourt, the O'Neill's All-Ireland Senior Singles championships are heating up. With four quarter-finals up for decision in both the Mens and Ladies sections, anybody who survives the weekend cull can consider themselves in with a serious chance of 2019 glory.
In the Mens division, top seed Diarmaid Nash of Clare had little trouble in overcoming David Hope [Offaly], setting up an intriguing encounter with veteran Dubliner Eoin Kennedy.
Though highly fancied to reach his second singles final this year, Nash will have to be on his game if he is to overcome a rejuvenated Kennedy, who comfortably saw off Joe McCann [Mayo] in the round-of-16.
If Nash needed a reminder that Kennedy was still a force to be reckoned with, he got it at the John Gaffney Memorial in January, where Kennedy knocked out then number one ranked player, Martin Mulkerrins. Not that Nash is the sort to take an opponent lightly.
A qualified actuary, working as an investment consultant, risk assessment is what he does. Kennedy however, has a background in engineering and therefore is no stranger to identifying structural weaknesses. This is sure to be the most analytical of the weekend’s matchups.
"Every shot he hits has a purpose. We train together a fair bit. He's so good defensively. He's very wily, keeps you constantly moving," said Nash, who has been in stunning form of late, winning two of the four pre-championship tournaments.
"Eoin is a very, very good player but if you want to win the championship, you have to beat everybody and I think if I play well, I should win."
The winner of Nash versus Kennedy will face either Armagh’s Charly Shanks or Patrick Funchion from Kilkenny. Shanks, coming into the event as something of an enigma, survived a scare in the round-of-16 as Ger Coonan [Tipperary] pushed the 2017 champion all the way.
Funchion, having upset the applecart somewhat with victory over Colin Crehan [Clare], will now have his sights firmly set on a first Senior Singles semi-final, having suffered defeat by the narrowest of margins at the same stage in 2016.
On the other side of the draw, number four seed Robbie McCarthy from Westmeath will square off against the younger of the Funchion brothers. Peter earned his place in the quarter-finals with a comprehensive victory over Cork’s Brendan Fleming in the previous round.
Expected by many to be the tie of the round, Funchion, having spent most of the previous year playing on the WPH Pro circuit in the States, had other ideas, and comfortably dispatched the Rebel in two straight.
In McCarthy, he faces the most decorated small alley exponent in the draw. Recently adding a third Irish Nationals title to his three Senior Singles titles, Robbie is back at the top of his game and this promises to be an attacking handball exhibition of the highest order.
The last matchup of the quarter-finals features defending champion Martin Mulkerrins [Galway] take on wily Wexford veteran, Gavin Buggy. Mulkerrins had little trouble in dispatching another experienced campaigner in Kerry’s Dominic Lynch in the round-of-16 and will be in typically no-nonsense mode as he looks to make history as being the first Connaught player ever to defend the Senior Singles title.
Buggy, recipient of a walkover from Wicklow’s Michael Gregan in the previous round, will have to come out all guns blazing if he is to stand any chance of upsetting the hard hitting Tribesman.
The quarter-finals of the Ladies Senior Singles sees the big hitters enter the fray, with defending champion Martina McMahon [Limerick], former champions Aisling Reilly [Antrim] and Catriona Casey [Cork], and future hopeful Fiona Tully [Roscommon] all called into action.
McMahon opens her defence against Kildare’s Leah Doyle in Tuamgraney, after Doyle impressed in ousting Niamh Dunne [Laois] in two straight last week.
Casey, bidding to recapture the title she has won in ’13, ’16, and ’17, begins her assault against a familiar opponent in the shape of Aishling O’Keefe, a fellow Rebel, and the lady she has partnered to four Senior Doubles crowns. O’Keefe overcame Clodagh Nash [Clare] in the previous round, in a hard fought affair that was easily the tie of the round.
Two-time champion Reilly will face Tipperary’s Sinead Meagher after the Premier County lass was the recipient of a walkover from Pauline Gallagher [Mayo]. Having missed the entire 2017 season due to shoulder surgery, Reilly - a two-time world champion – has struggled to reach the heights of previous years, but should prove too strong for Meagher, who also doubles as a senior camogie star for Tipperary.
Finally, the most interesting of the Ladies’ quarter-finals could well be the clash between Fiona Tully and Kilkenny’s Ciara Mahon. Mahon saw off Doireann Murphy [Clare} in comfortable fashion in the round-of-16 and in Tully, will meet a familiar foe.
Regular opponents over the past few years in all codes, this is the third year running where their paths cross in the last eight. Tully holds the edge in 40x20, with Mahon coming up trumps in 60x30 and one-wall. History suggests a Tully win, but an upset is long overdue.