ALLEY CHAT with Antóin Ó Braoin
Wexford Ready For Leinster Handball Tests
As historians reflect on what could be described as a slightly disappointing 2013 in terms of intercounty success, a 54 strong team are ready to don the purple and gold once again as the new season gets underway with the opening rounds of the Leinster GAA Handball 40×20 championships in the coming days.
Once again those Wexford players face a daunting task as, in common with most sports nowadays, the degree of difficulty needing to be overcome before success can be achieved continues to get higher and higher. The past five years in particular has seen the game change immeasurably, driven in the main by the promotion leading up and surrounding the hugely successful World Championships at the City West Hotel in 2012. The numbers taking part in all competitions continues to rise year on year and with it a whole host of upcoming players have emerged to challenge the ‘old order’.
The standard has risen right across the grades and it’s probably not being too contentious to say that the level of performance now needed to win the intermediate singles would probably have been sufficient to win the top senior grade not too many years ago, while those now winning the junior grade would likely have been regarded as top intermediate players back then. In the ‘overage’ grades (from aged 40 and upwards) fitness levels have gone through the roof and people of close to pensionable age are now stripping fitter than at any time in their life.
The enhanced promotion and greater profile of the game has attracted more families and people to it on one level while on another level those already playing are not only training harder, they are also training smarter and more professionally. The profile of a successful handballer today is that of a supremely fit individual, with very high levels of mobility, flexibility and durability, a player who can play equally well with both hands and one who can also bring to the table the mental toughness now routinely required for victory. Within that context the only Wexford players who will be expected to challenge for honours in these upcoming provincial and All Ireland championships will be those who will be aware of what it takes to win and who have put in the long hours of training and sacrifice necessary to compete at this level. Even then there are no guarantees of success as many others will be doing the same. Let’s have a look at a few of our best hopes here;
Intermediate: Paul Lambert and Peter Hughes are genuine contenders for honours in a grade bristling with talent. Lambert’s star has not shone as brightly in the past year or two but he has what it takes if the attitude is right. Hughes is a mentally tough individual who tends to be underrated but he will make it tough for everybody he faces. A very strong doubles partnership.
Junior: In a 24 man field Darren O’Toole will want for nothing in fitness and determination and while he will be hard to beat as usual, it would represent a career best performance if he was to come through this minefield. His best chance may lie with Malachy Whelan in the doubles event.
Minor: Keith Armstrong dented a few reputations by winning the All Ireland 60×30 Colleges intermediate singles title last year and in the process showed he has the ability to compete at national level. Nonetheless this is a very big step up in class and it’s probably going to be 2015, when he will again be eligible for this grade, that we will see him at his best.
Junior B: Wexford provide six of the twenty seven entries here but it would be a pleasant surprise if we were to also provide the winner. Only David Kenny and Jason Murphy can be considered to have a chance in the singles while Peter McGrath and Paddy Haughton look a potent pairing in the doubles and could have a good run.
Over 35: Gavin Buggy is a perennial challenger and with his hunger for success showing no signs of abating any time soon he will again be the man to beat in this age group. Injury caused him to withdraw last year and buoyed by his recent Winter League success he will be determined to atone. In a very interesting development he has joined forces with Tommy Hynes for the doubles and this partnership will start as one of the favourites for the national title.
Masters (Over 40) B: Both John Roche and Damien Kelly will be strong competitors in this B grade but their best chance may come in the doubles where Roche has teamed up with Shane Rossiter and Kelly with Ricky Barron. Either way Wexford hopes will be high in this grade.
Silver Masters (Over 45) B: If there is any justice in this game then Mick Armstrong will surely end his 40×20 famine by winning this All Ireland B singles title. A more dedicated and committed family would be hard to find and perhaps 2014 will be the year he finally gets ‘over the line’. He could even make it two titles as he joins forces with Phil Coleman in the doubles. Ricky Barron will add depth to Wexford’s challenge in the singles event.
Emerald Masters (Over 55) A: Even before a ball has been struck, Benny Doyle looks a snip to win this title in his first year in this age group. Back in action and fully fit after an enforced absence through injury, he is absolutely flying in training and surely only has to maintain this form to triumph. He will have an age advantage on his main opponents in Leinster and that is also a plus.
Diamond Masters (Over 60) A: Another player entering a new higher age group for the first time is Tony Breen and he will be a live contender despite the presence of the All Ireland champion amongst his provincial opponents. After a bout of shingles forced him out of the Emerald Masters All Ireland final last year he could be due a change of fortune.
Ruby Masters (Over 65) A: Two stalwarts of the game, Ned Buggy and Jim Doyle carry our hopes here and both are living proof of the benefits of a lifetime of handball. Each will compete well and if they can get past the favourite from Dublin then either could go all the way. Buggy will again team up with Garret Somers in the doubles and they will start favourites to win out.
Women’s Junior: The ever reliable Marguerite Gore will lead the Wexford charge in this grade where she will have Tanya O’Toole as one of her main challengers. The aforementioned O’Toole and Una Hughes will be strong contenders for the doubles championships.
A few others are capable of springing a surprise but on all known form these are the players most likely to get Wexford off to a winning start in 2014.
Ageless Buggy again the one to beat
200 players go to post for the 2014 County 40×20 championships which gets underway on Thursday next January 4th with the opening senior singles matches at Boolabawn, Davidstown. Holder Gavin Buggy, St. Josephs will take on young pretender Peter Hughes, Ballyhogue while the 2012 handballer of the year Darren O’Toole, Coolgreany opens his campaign against Jason Murphy, Castlebridge. Both will be expected to win.
Opinion is divided as to whether Buggy at close to 40 years of age is as good as he ever was, or whether those coming behind have not maintained the Wexford tradition of producing natural successors, but either way he will start favourite to win his 7th county senior singles title in eight years. The pretenders to the throne will be Buggy’s clubmate and club doubles partner Paul Lambert as well as the aforementioned Peter Hughes but neither has shown the kind of improvement in the past year or two that would be needed to win a senior singles title. It is therefore likely that the main challenge to Buggy’s dominance will come from Tommy Hynes, a man who does not particularly fancy the small court game and who by his own admission has entered mainly to stay in shape for the summer 60×30 season. He blew Buggy away in his preferred softball code last year but is likely to find his former clubmate a different proposition in the 40×20 court.
The absence of some big names such as Barry Goff, Castlebridge, Colin Keeling, St. Mary’s and the up and coming Galen Riordan, Ballyhogue has undoubtedly robbed the championship of some of its lustre but it’s still one of the most competitive domestic line-ups in Ireland and certain to provide many memorable moments before the last ball is struck.
In the women’s junior singles Marguerite Gore, St. Mary’s will again start favourite having completed a clean sweep of all four county titles last year, but young players such as Holly Hynes, also of St. Mary’s will be expected to seriously challenge that dominance this time around. Also contending strongly will be Tanya O’Toole, Coolgreany who has been close on a number of occasions.
Glen Fuels Awards
Voting is continuing for the 2nd Annual Glen Fuels Handballer of the Year Award and supporters of Gavin Buggy, Holly Hynes, Todd Hynes, Tommy Hynes and Galen Riordan have been logging on to www.glenfuels.com in their droves. In alphabetical order the achievements of the contenders have been as follows;
Gavin Buggy – winner of Leinster & All Ireland 60×30 Over 35 singles, Leinster 40×20 Over 35 doubles, Winter League Singles and County 40×20 senior singles and senior doubles.
Holly Hynes – winner of Leinster 40×20 and 60×30 under 14 singles, county 40×20 and 60×30 junior doubles and county 40×20 and 60×30 under 14 singles.
Todd Hynes – winner of All Ireland 40×20 Cumann na mBunscoil under 13 singles, Leinster 60×30 Under 13 singles, Leinster 40×20 and 60×30 team event, county 40×20 and 60×30 under 13 singles and doubles.
Tommy Hynes – winner of Leinster & All Ireland 60×30 Masters A Doubles and county 60×30 senior singles and doubles.
Galen Riordan – winner of All Ireland minor hardball singles, Leinster 40×20 and 60×30 minor singles, Leinster 60×30 colleges intermediate singles and county 40×20 intermediate singles