Busy Saturday of GAA Handball action at Croke Park:

By Paul Fitzpatrick

The stage is set for two mouthwatering All-Ireland Senior Softball Doubles finals tomorrow (Saturday) at the National Handball Centre in Croke Park as defending champions Meath and Cork put their titles on the line in the men’s and ladies finals respectively.

In the Men’s Senior Doubles decider, Royals’ Gary McConnell and Brian Carroll are seeking a third ‘big alley’ crown as a partnership. Last year, they came through a stern test in the final against Galway’s Martin and Diarmuid Mulkerrins and they have shown fine form this season, culminating in a straight-games semi-final win over the Kilkenny lefty-righty pairing of Ciaran Neary and Shane Dunne.

The Kells clubmen come into the clash as favourites as they seek to continue a superb tradition in this grade among their own club members, dating back several decades.

“There’s definitely pressure every year, going in as champions, everyone saying you have a great chance of winning, it does put a bit of pressure on and it’s trying to keep the Kells tradition going as well, that’s nearly a Kells thing now at this stage, you’re winning Senior Doubles. It’s the pressure of that as well, you’re nearly expected to win,” McConnell said.

“It’s tough and everybody is in it to win, you just can’t take anyone for granted. We got off to a great start in the semi-final and it probably just took the Kilkenny lads a little bit longer than us to get into it but they showed how good they are in the second game.

“Some people might say that we took our foot off the pedal but we actually didn’t, the lads showed how good they are and our shots just weren’t coming off as well as in the first game. Everybody is there, everybody is willing to give it their all and the pressure is definitely on us all the time to try and win the title that we won in previous years. You can definitely feel the pressure but it’s good pressure because it keeps you on your toes.”

Facing them are 2015 champions Eoin Kennedy and Carl Browne of Dublin. Kennedy, the nine-time Senior Singles champion, has been battling a debilitating hip injury of late but it is testament to the St Brigid’s legend’s battling qualities that he has been excellent thus far.

The skilful Browne also impressed in the earlier rounds; Dublin saw off surprise packages Niall Joyce and Paddy Murphy from Mayo in the semi-final and will come into the match with confidence. However, they will need to be on top of their games against the champions; Carroll recently won the Irish Softball Nationals Open Singles title in Wexford while McConnell is regarded as one of the elite softball players in the game and, indeed, both men also excel in the 40×20 code.

In the ladies decider, Cork’s Catriona Casey and Aishling O’Keeffe are aiming for their 10th Senior Softball Doubles title when they meet Kilkenny’s Ciara Mahon and Amy Brennan in a repeat of last year’s final. The Rebels have been extraordinarily consistent over the years and will carry the favourites’ tag into battle – and the hurt of losing a tiebreaker in the 40×20 final against Galway this year will be a motivating factor, says Dublin-based O’Keeffe.

“Losing the 40×20 has added to my motivation. We were extremely disappointed to lose the 40×20. I believe I really didn’t play to the best of my potential and that has really motivated me so I’m really eager to make amends next weekend,” she said.

Casey has won every major title in the game and continues to excel but the Cats are an outstanding duo in their own right, with the experienced and athletic Mahon on the left and young star Brennan playing the tricky right-side role, and they will be expected to mount a strong challenge.

Action serves off at 12 noon with the meeting of Tyrone (Caislin Tracey and Laura Duff) and Kilkenny (Katie Brennan and Holly Byrne) in the Ladies Minor Doubles decider.

The matches will be streamed live on the Sport TG4 YouTube channel.