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Three's A Crowd- An Old Irish Sporting Rivalry Could Catch Fire This Weekend

Three's A Crowd- An Old Irish Sporting Rivalry Could Catch Fire This Weekend
By Paul Fitzpatrick Updated

For the longest time, the biggest rivalry in Irish women's handball centred on two players – Catriona Casey and Aisling Reilly.

Their clashes gripped the imagination, earning precious column inches in the national press. Five-time world men's champion Paul Brady spoke of his admiration for the leading ladies and for the first time, the stands were packed for the women's as well as the men's finals.

They met in three All-Ireland finals in a row between 2014 and 2016, with Reilly winning two and edging the World Championships decider in Calgary, Canada in 2015. And then, at a time when she held all of the major titles, Reilly was forced to spend a season the sidelines after a career-threatening shoulder injury. Into the breach stepped Limerick's Martina McMahon and a new era dawned.

McMahon and Casey have shared every major honour in the game between them since 2017, producing ridiculously close deciders including two 21-20 third game All-Ireland senior finals (for context, there have only been a handful of those in history).

Belfast right-hander Reilly, still only 30, has been on the comeback trail since and this Saturday in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, she locks horns with Casey again, seeking to gatecrash a party she once hosted. The St Paul's star pioneered powerful, aggressive, offensive handball in the female game but, off court, she is famously laid back. The hype about Casey and McMahon? It doesn’t really register.

“It’s been a fair few years since I held the number one spot and to be honest I never really paid much attention to the talk back then so it doesn’t really affect me now either,” said Reilly this week.

“The standard of games between the two have been nip and tuck and very exciting so they deserve all the talk.”

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Post-surgery, she has, bit by bit, begun to claw her way back to her previous level.

“I don’t think I’ve quite reached where I was before yet. The standard has risen and I need to match that, which I think I can. I could definitely improve aspects of my game.

“My goals in the last couple of years have definitely changed. If you’d have told me two years ago I’d be competing regularly and playing decent enough while improving game after game, I’d have bitten your hand off but now I’m focused on pushing on another bit.”

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For non-handball aficionados, the side-arm is the attacking weapon of choice for most elite players. It requires the shooter to get down low, bending their arm back at the elbow before performing a snapping motion at vicious speed.

Reilly's right side-arm was the tool with which most of her major wins were constructed. Ominously for the opposition, she believes it is now as dangerous as it ever was.

“I don’t think my game has changed. It [surgery] has made playing more enjoyable and has given me a side-arm swing back which I wasn’t able to do for a long, long time. I think adapting to each opponent is easier as I’m not protecting an injury in the shoulder any more. I do feel the odd tightness here and there but that’s about it.

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“Has the standard risen? Absolutely it has, which is a credit to the current ladies who are playing and competing in each tournament. The bracket has been packed and the girls seem to be eager to play the top players which in times past wasn’t the case.

“I’ve really enjoyed playing the different names each month who have progressed through the juvenile ranks here and are edging into the Open grade. It’ll be interesting in the next few years to see who the next wave of players will be coming through.”

The cavalry may be coming alright but for now, Casey and McMahon remain the big guns, with Reilly breathing down their neck and Roscommon's Fiona Tully leading the chasing pack.

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On Saturday, it's Reilly vs Casey and McMahon vs Tully or Kildare's Mollie Dagg on the undercard to the O'Neill's All-Ireland Men's semi-finals which pit Diarmaid Nash (Clare) against Martin Mulkerrins (Galway) and holder Robbie McCarthy (Westmeath) against former champion Charly Shanks (Armagh). All matches will be streamed live on the GAA Handball social media channels.

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