It’s the greatest banker in sport. When both Catriona Casey and Martina McMahon are in the draw for any competition, be it a tournament or a championship, home or abroad, regardless of the code of handball, they almost invariably meet in the final.
We say ‘almost’ because there has been one upset, to our knowledge, in recent years – in 2020, Aoife McCarthy of Westmeath defeated Casey in the 60x30 Senior Singles quarter-final – but other than that, it has been McMahon and Casey, Casey and McMahon, inextricably linked as the greatest female players in the game.
The pair have met in the Senior Softball Singles final every year since 2014; in the small court, Aisling Reilly, in 2016, was the last player outside of the leading two to make a final.
If the rivalry wasn’t so close, it would be becoming almost tedious but the fact that the results have tended to flip-flop, and the games have often been extremely close, means that this is a fixture always savoured by handball fans.
The pair have been interviewed many times ahead of playing each other and rarely do the answers vary much. They could not be more familiar with each other’s games and nor could the spectators.
McMahon is aggressive and powerful. On commentary at the 4-Wall final this year, after Martina served a short ball, analyst Reilly correctly predicted she would eschew a safe second serve and go for power and precision again.
“Martina doesn’t hit a second serve, she hits a second ‘first’ serve,” Reilly smiled. It was a neat description which summed up the Limerick woman’s approach. McMahon loves the game and loves how she plays it; in interviews, she frequently mentions how she loves to roll the ball and hammers home the point that no matter how tight the match is, she will continue to attack.
There may be an element of psychology in this, convincing herself and her opponents; regardless, it is the truth.
She suffered a potentially career-ending back injury during lockdown yet speaking to GAAHandball.ie last March, there was no suggestion she would radically alter her approach. Tweaks, yes, but a move away from offensive handball? No chance.
“I’m not where I was before but it’s all about trying to adapt my game now, finding out what I can and can’t do. But you know me, nothing is going to change my game away from shooting from any angle. Whether I can bend down or not, I’m still going to go for kills.
“On Saturday I might be injured, I might be like a geriatric around the place but my mind is still focused on bringing that title home. If I have to die or be carried out of the court, I’ll be carried out but I’m definitely not going to go down without a fight.”
Casey, meanwhile, plays a different, more balanced game. Her speed is unrivalled in the women’s game, as is her defensive play and retrieving while she also possesses a powerful two-handed attacking arsenal to draw on.
Like all great champions, she has the killer instinct, regardless of opponent. Like the great Ducksy Walsh, her claws are sharp, belying her soft-spoken demeanour, and she does not let up.
“Will I be nervous? Yeah, I definitely do get nervous, the morning of the game I don’t like chatting to people,” she laughed, when we spoke to her before the 4-Wall final.
“I definitely do get nervous, I don’t think that ever changes or ever will change. But it’s a good thing really because it shows that you care.”
What makes this rivalry such a treat for the fans is that both players do care, immensely. Their desire to be the best – and that means beating the other – is innate and deep and brings to mind the ‘immovable object meets irresistible force’ description, a cliché, yes, but no less true for that.
This writer once glibly asked Casey how long it had taken to get over a defeat in the World Championships, only to be met with a disbelieving look and a painfully honest answer: "I don't think you ever get over a defeat like that."
That's what it means to them both and they have driven each other on. Martina has had to become more consistent, less streaky. She did. Catriona has had to fight fire with fire in the front court. She did, too. Both have added that to their games and become better players, dragging up the standard of the sport in the process in the same way that the likes of Paul Brady and Tony Healy did in the mid-noughties when they, too, were engaged in a fierce rivalry and regularly met at the business end of the Majors.
At the top level, the standard is extraordinary, the skills surpassing anything we have seen before in the ladies championship, with all due respect to the brilliant champions of the past who, in their time, raised the game too. Nipping at their heels are the likes of Fiona Tully and Cíana Ní Churaoín among others. The latter forced McMahon to a tiebreaker in Martina’s comeback match (post-injury) earlier in the year while Tully has the skillset to compete with anyone.
However, these two stand alone. The fans have been lucky to witness the epics these two giants have put on in recent years. They have been an adornment on not just our sport but all sport.
But good things don’t last forever. This weekend, whether you are in St Coman’s HC in Roscommon or watching online, make sure to appreciate what you are witnessing, two of the great champions of the greatest sport, putting it all on the line. A sports fan's dream.
By Paul Fitzpatrick
Softball Singles Finals - Saturday 3rd Sept 2022
At St Coman's HC, Roscommon, from 12pm
- Girls Minor: Leah Maguire (Clare) v Carragh Kennedy (Ros)
- Boys Minor: Kyle Jordan (KK) v Cormac Finn (Sligo)
- Mens Senior: Robbie McCarthy (Westmeath) v Gary McConnell (Meath)
- Ladies Senior: Martina McMahon v Catriona Casey (Cork)