It’s testament to his skill and his consistency that there has only been one O’Neill’s All-Ireland 4-Wall Senior Singles final played since 2012 which didn’t involve Robbie McCarthy.
The Mullingar maestro was runner-up to Paul Brady in 2012 and 2013 and won the finals of 2014 (against today’s opponent, Diarmaid Nash), 2015 and 2016 (both against Charly Shanks, the first a 21-20 third game thriller).
McCarthy lost to Shanks in 2017, beat Nash again in the final in 2019 and had reached the 2020 decider against Martin Mulkerrins before it was shelved due to pandemic-related restrictions.
Last year, McCarthy qualified for yet another Senior Singles final in the ‘small court’ but came up short as Nash came through a hard-fought tiebreaker to take the title back to Clare for the first time since the great Pat Kirby won in 1980.
The odd year out for McCarthy was 2018, when Mulkerrins beat Shanks in the final. With neither of those two wonderful players in the draw this year, the way seemed clear for a repeat of last year’s final – and so it has come to pass.
Last weekend, Nash came through against Cork’s Michael Hedigan (21-5, 21-20) before seeing off Tyrone’s Conor McElduff (21-7, 21-16) to advance to the decider where he will meet the Mullingar man, who impressed in beating Kilkenny’s Peter Funchion (21-8, 21-11) in the semi-final and Peter’s brother Patrick 21-6, 21-16.
The decider seems finely poised. Left-hander Nash may have achieved a long-held ambition last year but, he told GAAHandball.ie recently, he is as hungry as ever to do it again.
“Last year was unbelievable, the Senior Singles was the thing I wanted to win the most by a mile,” Nash said.
“I’m so happy to have won the US Nationals as well, for an Irish handballer it’s probably a bigger deal because there’s only three Irish players who have ever done it but for me personally, the championship was more important – it meant more to me, it meant more to my family. I was just so relieved almost to win the bloody thing.
“This year, there’s two ways it can go. You can be happy with your lot or you can try to win a couple of them. I know my form hasn’t indicated it but I think I’m going to give this championship a right go. What I don’t want to do is be a flash in the pan, a one-year wonder kind of thing. But I’m very conscious that the championship is insanely hard won, guys don’t tend to win it year on year.
“Robbie won one, Charly won one, Martin won one, Robbie won again, then we had no championship for two years and then I won one. It hasn’t been retained for six or eight years. That is motivating to me.
“I have no real responsibilities at the moment, I have no kids or anything, so I’d absolutely love to win another one. I feel like I’m as motivated as ever and I’ve trained hard so it’s about putting it together.”
Another epic tussle seems probable between two highly-skilled and conditioned players who have proven their mettle on the big stage many times over. Both are superb in the front court and that is where the contest is likely to be won or lost.
Whether McCarthy adds to his legacy with a fifth title or Nash becomes the ninth man to retain the crown, only time will tell.