Wexford rocks as Gavin Buggy and Galen Riordan dethrone Meath to claim the All Ireland senior softball doubles title
Report by AOB
In what was surely one of the most emotionally charged occasions ever experienced at a handball event in Wexford or indeed anywhere else in the country, Gavin Buggy and Galen Riordan produced the performance of their lives at Castlebridge on Saturday to turn over reigning champions and overwhelming favourites Gary McConnell and Brian Carroll, Meath, to win the All Ireland senior softball doubles title on a scoreline of 7-21, 21-14, 11-2.
The Royals arrived at the Wexford venue seeking to win this championship for a third time in succession, having been victorious in 2018 and 2019 before covid stopped play and with the All Ireland 4-wall senior doubles title already secured earlier this year. As partnerships go their credentials were impeccable and it was acknowledged by all, that Buggy and Riordan would have to scale unprecedented heights if this historic championship was to come to the county for only the 11th time since 1925.
With this likely to be the last All Ireland senior final to be played outside of the soon to open National Handball Centre at Croke Park, the event held a special significance for handball people everywhere, but none more so than those in Wexford whose long association with, and support for, the softball code contributed to the Croke Park decision to play this historic final on Slaneyside. Our relationship with the senior softball doubles championship began in earnest back to 1957 when John Ryan (RIP) and John Doyle (RIP) brought the title to Wexford for the first time and as the years rolled by others went on to emulate and, in some cases surpass, that earlier achievement. These included Dick Lyng in 1970, ‘75, ‘77, ‘79 and ‘82, Seamus Buggy in ‘70, ‘75 and ‘79, Pat Murphy in ‘72, ‘74, and ‘75, John Quigley in ‘72 and ‘74, Jimmy Goggins (RIP) in ‘82, and in more recent times Colin Keeling in 2000 and 2011 alongside Tommy Hynes and Barry Goff respectively. These may have been different times and different eras, but there was one undeniable constant with all of those names, you had to be a top doubles player to win this title and nothing else would get you on to that list. All those to have won it proved themselves to be top doubles players and now Gavin Buggy and Galen Riordan have earned the right to full membership of this illustrious group.
Despite the low level of expectation felt by just about everyone outside of Meath, this day somehow had a different feel to it from the time local singer Matty Murphy led the congregation in a stirring rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann. It was as if emptying the lungs seemed to clear all feelings of pessimism permeating the venue and instead it was almost possible to smell the whiff of cordite in the air! The scene was set!
Wexford began this match pretty well and the early exchanges were even as both sides probed for weaknesses. Meath were slightly tentative though and with both Wexford players working very hard it was nip and tuck up to the stage where Buggy and Riordan held a 5-4 advantage. The pendulum then gradually swung towards Meath as McConnell and Carroll showed their pedigree and understanding to open up an 11-5 lead. That surge proved vital as it put Buggy and Riordan on the backfoot for the remainder of that first game and they found it hard to add to their tally as McConnell and Carroll proceeded to give a masterclass in doubles play. It was like trying to stem the flow of the tide with a fork as the Royals piled on score after score and while Buggy and Riordan did work their socks off to stay in contention, it was Meath who closed out the opening game on a scoreline of 21-7.
Buggy and Riordan came out for the second in determined mood and after a number of scoreless visits for both sides it was the Wexford pairing who made the breakthrough to lead 10-3. But just when it looked like they had the champions in trouble, McConnell and Carroll responded in brilliant fashion to show why they are regarded as one of the very best partnerships in the game. In just two visits they reduced the deficit to 10-9 and with Wexford now struggling, Meath tacked on another five points to forge 14-10 in front. It was a difficult time for Buggy and Riordan but throughout that shaky spell they competed terribly well and made the champions fight for every point. Although now in sight of victory both McConnell and Carroll were beginning to show signs of tiredness and while we didn’t know it yet, this match was about to change inexorably! It began with Buggy switching to an overhand serve from the left hand side and with Carroll finding it difficult to take it on the fly, McConnell’s return was simply not as precise as before. Buggy went for the jugular on the weaker return and showing great accuracy he killed several shots in succession to put Wexford back in front at 15-14. Now looking the stronger and with Riordan matching his partners intensity, it was the Wexfordmen who took complete charge and showing incredible fitness and composure they powered home 21-14 to level the tie at one game each.
The tie break to decide this All Ireland final was simply surreal as a visibly shaken McConnell and Carroll did get the first two points, but were then swamped by a rampant Buggy and Riordan as the entire building rocked with passion and intensity. The Wexford players appeared to be carried along on this tidal wave of emotion as inside the court Buggy was defying his 48 years and playing like a man possessed, while shoulder to shoulder with him Galen Riordan rolled flat kills with both hands. It was champagne handball worthy of the occasion and under such pressure the champions wilted. The eventual winning margin was 11-2 and the time and extent of the turnaround in this match can be traced back to the midpoint of the second game when Meath held a 14-10 lead. From that point of the match to the finish, Buggy and Riordan outscored their opponents by 22 points to 2, in the process showing a level of fitness, composure and determination, that great players reserve for such occasions. For Buggy, this first senior title has come at an age when most (but obviously not him) are past their best and is richly deserved after such a stellar career. That one missing prized asset is now part of his collection and after this performance the medal rests where it belongs. His uncle Seamus who has three senior doubles medals from 1970, ’75 and ‘79 was present to witness another great family occasion and he was understandably very proud that his nephew had joined him in this ‘exclusive club’.
For Galen Riordan it is also a first senior title and at 27 years of age, and on the evidence of this final, there is a fair chance it will not be his last. He stood his ground throughout a tension filled encounter and when Meath decided to concentrate on him in the tiebreaker, he showed nerves of steel to finish in style on several occasions
The scenes at the end were of unbridled emotion as the court filled with supporters and spectators for the presentations which were made by Leinster President Ricky Barron assisted by Pauric Dowdall of GAA Handball Ireland. Afterwards the arena rocked to a recording of ‘The Purple and Gold’ Wild Swans- Purple and Gold ’96 – YouTube as the ‘Home of Handball’ celebrated in style.
One more happening is worthy of mention on what was an unforgettable day for Wexford handball. Following the match and just as he was leaving the venue Brian Carroll returned from his car with a Meath jersey which he handed to a young Wexford supporter whom he had passed on his way out. After coming to the county in full expectation of retaining the title, only to relinquish it in comprehensive fashion to the natives, the man who had won this championship on nine previous occasions still had a thought for a young fan of the game. Sheer class and a true champion, on and off the court!