GAA Handball: Conor McElduff takes top billing as Tyrone claim 4 titles at Irish Nationals
Another huge contingent of Tyrone GAA Handballers made the trip west at the weekend for the annual GAA Handball Irish Wallball Nationals. This has largely been a happy hunting ground for the O’Neill County with dominant reruns achieved in terms of major titles since the event was staged at the Breaffy Sports Arena Venue for the first time back in 2009.
Topping the weekend billing was the Mens and Ladies Open National titles and a large crowd gathered for a fantastic climax to Saturday’s action with the eagerly awaited Mens Open Final. Tyrone’s Conor McElduff, winner of the Open Nationals title in 2014 and 2015, ultimately made the 2017 Nationals his own. The Breacach clubman ‘bossed’ what was arguably the strongest field of Irish players assembled to compete in the event and unquestionably delivered one of the most flawless series of displays seen in the wallball code to date.
The most satisfying aspect for McElduff, and certainly one of the most impressive is the fact that he had been completely out of the sport for 9 months due to an illness following last year’s Irish Nationals event.
“This is an amazing feeling. Ten months ago I wasn’t even sure if I would be playing handball again let alone coming back and winning the Irish Nationals in 2017. I knew coming in it was one of the toughest draws I had faced in the Nationals and my goal was to stay focussed, be in control of my own game and I was confident in my ability to win the big points in the big games. I really had to dig deep at times against both Paudi (Quish) and Charly (Shanks) and the intense heat on court can make it difficult at times too. But I’m just ecstatic to get through the weekend, thankful to be back playing and on a compete high to have won my 3rd Nationals title.”
The prestige of the Wallball Nationals continues to rise with every campaign. The event was first launched back in the nineties by the Sligo County Board, who maintained the one wall game superbly for many years in Ireland when it ultimately wasn’t played anywhere else. A massive spark set the game alight in 2009 when it was visualised to create a One Wall Arena which would bring the entire event and players together for the first time. With over 400 players competing in the Irish Nationals by 2010 and almost 600 players in the Nationals on the one occasion it was outside of Breaffy at the Citywest, in the pre 2012 World Championships build-up, it continues to impress and be recognised as one of the best Handball events in Ireland and possibly around the World.
One Wall Handball, as it was known up until 2011, became ‘Wallball’ following executive meetings of various handball leaders from around the world in 2011. That renaming was part of a strategy to see the sport secure Olympic status, with ‘handball’ already a team sport in the Olympic Games. All in all, Wallball continues to grow rapidly in Ireland, Europe and around the world and Conor McElduff could well be the biggest Irish name, in this code of the sport, to finally take on the masters of wallball in USA and Puerto Rico in the years ahead.
And on the evidence served up across the open and junior grades at the weekend, Ireland looks very much set to take its place at the top table in World Wallball action in the very near future!
“This is the title I want to win most every year. I love the Wallball Nationals. The event itself is very special and the entire place around Breaffy is buzzing all weekend. It is such a fantastic social weekend too and possibly the best there is in terms of the Irish handball community coming together, playing the sport, enjoying the action, socialising and celebrating what is so good about GAA Handball overall. It is just brilliant to see young kids, top players and the older masters players all playing on different courts in the same arena.”
“It’s a special event and to have come here again this weekend and win the Open title is something that I relish and means the World to me. I’m already thinking about next year at the Nationals but also to the World Championships in the USA in August 2018. I think my game is constantly improving and would be hoping that I can become the first Irish player to go all the way in the wallball code in the same way as Paul Brady led the way in 40×20”.
Four titles for Tyrone…
McElduff was one of 4 major title winners for Tyrone at the weekend as the O’Neill County topped the honours list with Kilkenny and Galway. Indeed, the Tyrone star had to overcome fellow county men Paddy McCrory (31-6) and Johnny Woods (24-13) to book his semi final ticket against Limerick’s Paudi Quish. In that contest, after leading 15-10, McElduff exhibited tremendous composure as Quish drew level at 15-15 before 9 super points in a row saw the Tyrone player go on to win 24-16. In the other half of the draw, Shanks was showing all his class in defeating Mayo’s Ciaran Burke (28-16), Darragh Daly (24-13) and reigning champion, Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins (20-14) t reach his fifth final.
The opening game in the decider provided one of the best in many years with sensational retrieving, killshots, precision passes down the lines and a few amazing lobs in there too. It was finely balanced for much of the way until McElduff broke to lead 14-9. Shanks battled resiliently though t make it 13-14 but the Tyrone man held his nerve with a brilliant rollout t win 15-13. He then took the title 15-6 in the second.
Sean Kerr was in action in the last match of the entire weekend in what was arguably the outstanding match of the Tournament. Kerr and Galway’s Jamie Kelly served up a thrilling spectacle with incredible speed, accuracy and again the retrieving was sensational. Kelly led 12-7 going into the final minutes but Kerr rallied to lead 13-12 and 20 seconds to play. The Galway player produced the “lob shot of the nationals” to get back in and just got the ace as the buzzer sounded. Kerr then went on t take the title by 5-3 in the tie-break.
Loughmacrory’s Caitlin Conway made it title number 3 on the day for the County when producing brilliant form in the Girls 15 & Under event. It took a terrific display to firstly deny Armagh’s Cailiosa Ní Dhúill 20-18 in the semi final and then gave a most accomplished display in the final to defeat Mayo’s Clare Reynolds 21-11 in the final, the latter having defeated another Loughmacrory player, Mairead Fox in the semi final by 19-14. A terrific weekend for Conway who had gone so close in the past few seasons to claiming that National title but showing an impressive steely side on this occasion to claim a top class title win.
Breacach’s Niall Kerr made it a triple celebration on the weekend for his club when he secured the Silver Masters title for the second year running. Kerr had wins over Sligo’s Gerard Coleman (31-9) and Galway’s Mike Dillon (23-16) to set up a final with county colleague, Loughmacrory’s Chris Curran. The latter had defeated Connacht Masters champion, Galway’s Graham Casburn 23-18 and Mark McCartan 30-7 to reach the final but it was Kerr who held the edge in the decider to claim the honours by 24-19.
There were also a few other eye-catching appearances by Tyrone players with Loughmacrory’s Conor Duff reaching the Mens C Final, after 5 matches, in his first ever excursion to the event and losing out to Galway’s Oisin O Cuilin 17-9. The winner had also denied Loughmacrory’s Paul Donnelly in the semi final by 21-17. Both Dara Curran and Cahir Munroe were unlucky to lose by a single ace in their Boys 15&U matches, Zak Devine and Caolan McCartan were semi finalists and showed solid form in the Boys 15&U B competition, Ciaran McNally was an eye-catching semi finalist in the Boys 13&U B, Michelle Warren made the semi finals of the Ladies B and Dearbhail Fox made it to the semi finals of the Girls 13&U B.
Overall it was a tremendous showing by Tyrone players over the Irish Nationals Weekend and with more Wallball action now to come in the next 3 weeks with the all Ireland Wallball Championships semi finals and finals on 15th July in Mount Talbot (Roscommon) and then another huge and exciting entry already confirmed for the annual Loughmacrory Wallball Showdown on 28th-30th July.
The Mens and Ladies Nationals open champions, runners-up and most of the starring cast have all confirmed for what promises to be a top class weekend event again. Entry forms, tournament information, online entry, grades of play, tournament jerseys can all be sourced at www.loughmacrory.com and there will also by a one-off ‘Registration Night’ for all local players between 7pm and 8pm next Tuesday evening 11th July at the Loughmacrory one wall Arena.
Title wins by County at the 2017 GAA Handball Irish Wallball Nationals: Tyrone 4, Kilkenny 4, Galway 4, Limerick 2, Wexford 2, Kerry 2, Cork 1, Mayo 1, Down 1, Kildare 1, Armagh 1, Monaghan 1, Defence Forces 1