Safe hands of Aisling Reilly and Catriona Casey deliver promise
The two finest women handball players in the world go head to head at the Irish Nationals
Aisling Reilly (left) of Antrim is the current world handball champion while Cork’s Catriona Casey won the All-Ireland championship in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, a month ago. photographs: inpho
Imagine a sporting landscape where there is not one but two Katie Taylors, Irish female superstars who are the undoubted brand leaders in the world in their chosen sporting discipline. That’s the case in GAA handball, where the girls got game – lots of game. And yet Aisling Reilly and Catriona Casey are not household names. The leading female handball players in the world are, in fact, not that well known at all outside of disciples of their own code.
Theirs, though, is a rivalry as engaging as any, in any sport, right now. It has it all. Reilly, from Belfast, is powerful, explosive and aggressive. Cork’s Casey is a methodical right-hander who plays the percentages.
This weekend, the pair will enter the Irish nationals on Reilly’s home turf and, barring a monumental upset, will meet in the final. Once there, it will be a toss up.
Don’t believe us? Well, Reilly is the current world champion, defeating Casey by two points in a tense tie-breaker in the world final on a sultry evening in Calgary, Canada, last August in a game webcast to a global audience of thousands.
Losing the Worlds drove Casey on to the most recent success. “Obviously it was very tough. Three years is a long time to wait again to get another chance at a world title but obviously there are lots of titles up for grabs,” she recalls.
“The All-Ireland was my main focus for this year. Losses drive everyone on. Over the last two and a half, three years, Aisling and I played an awful lot. In terms of preparing myself, there’s no point in over thinking it, going back over previous games, you have to learn from them but you can’t get too emotional about it either. You have to focus.”
Casey (23) is a schoolteacher in Cork while Reilly, four years her senior, is a fitness instructor employed by former world boxing champion Brian Magee. They travel to the US and Canada up to half a dozen times each year and invariably meet in the final of major professional tournaments, such as last October’s US Open in Los Angeles, broadcast live on ESPN. On that occasion, Reilly won.
The pendulum had swung Casey’s way for about two years in the lead up to last year’s All-Ireland and World Championships. So confident was the Ballydesmond woman in her skillset that she began to enter qualifiers for the men’s pro tour in the States, with leading American promoter Dave Vincent describing her as the greatest female to ever play the game.
“There are maybe 80 guys in the whole of America who could beat her, and there are tens of thousands of players. She is that good,” Vincent, who is based in Tucson, Arizona, gushed.
And yet, results suggest there is nothing between them. How did it start, this ongoing arm wrestle for the crown?
“In the beginning I think I was just stronger and she probably went away and worked on coming in to play me whereas I was just happy enough going in and playing my game as I normally would have,” says Reilly, matter-of-factly. “But obviously she adapted quite well and she started beating me so I was going back to the drawing board and saying ‘what can I work on, what can I do here?’. “It was just literally changing two or three things to try to pip her to the post again.”
Both are aware that while the talent pool is deeper than ever, at the summit, the air is thinner. They trade in a different currency to anyone else in the game and when they meet, two-hour matches are common.
“How do I prepare for her?” asks Reilly. “I suppose it’s the same way but very focused. You know the intensity of the game is going to be much higher for a much longer period of time. You kind of have it in the back of your mind that it’s going to be at least an hour or above so you have to prepare mentally for that.”
The duo, then, have scaled new heights but it can be argued they are standing on the shoulders of a giant in the form of Fiona Shannon, the magnificent Antrim player who was the first Irish world champion.
Shannon, now retired, was extremely well-conditioned and had the heart to go with her hustle. She practically alleviated hand errors, developed an excellent defensive game and came prepared. For a decade, nobody could handle it.
But the game has moved on and the torch was passed on to the younger brigade on a raucous night in front of 4,000 fans in October, 2012, at CityWest, when Reilly beat her in the final of the World Championships.
Casey, still eligible for the under-19 grade which she won at a canter, had opted to skip the Open that year, a decision she admitted regretting.
Reilly did it the hard way in toppling Shannon but the handball world almost spun off its axis a few months later when Casey, just out of school, defeated her in a 21-19 third game in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Since then, they have met in the final of every major competition they have entered and results have been split. Where once handball followers attended big programmes fixated by the men’s finals, now the galleries are jammed for Reilly v Casey clashes.
“It’s fantastic for the game, I suppose,” says Casey. “We are just focused on winning more than anything, of course, but if it’s raising the profile of handball and ladies sport in general, that’s brilliant.
“I think Aisling and myself drive each other on but there are so many great players in the game now that we can’t afford to take anyone for granted.”
The chasing pack includes the likes of Kerry’s Ashley Prendiville, Down’s Lorraine Havern, Limerick left-hander Martina McMahon and Galway dual star Cíana Ní Churaoín, all ready to gate-crash the party.
“It’s hard to admit that you change your game to play any one player but Catriona has definitely posed a big challenge for me.
“There are a lot of good girls coming up now behind me and I suppose you do have a target on your back but that’s part and parcel of sport and it’s something that I enjoy because it drives me on and it makes me want to go training and get better.”
That’s not in doubt. With two of the greatest players in history in their prime and colliding regularly at full tilt, the future of this ancient sport is definitely in safe hands.
For the longest time, the public image of handball could be tied to that of the crumbling outdoor ball alleys which dot the countryside. But the sport is experiencing a boom in participation. One-wall handball – cheap, accessible and less daunting for novices – has exploded, with 300 courts springing up around the country in the last five years.
What is driving the transformation has been the increase in standard at senior level. In the women’s game, there has never been anyone better than the current leading lights. “Aisling and Catriona are amazing players but above all, amazing ambassadors for the sport,” says GAA Handball’s national manager John Kelly.
Aisling Reilly and Catriona Casey will meet in the Irish Nationals this weekend in Belfast, after which they will clash at the US Nationals next month in Fridley, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from Minneapolis.
There are four major titles in the women’s game – the Irish Championship, the Irish Nationals, the US Nationals and the triennial World Championships.
Reilly and Casey have split the last four All-Irelands and the same is the case in the US Nationals.
Reilly won the 2012 and 2015 World Championships, Casey the 2013 and 2015 Irish Championships, with Reilly winning in 2014 and 2015.