While many different metrics can be used to gauge the competitiveness of the GAA’s club championships, the depth of competition can be ascertained, to some degree, by examining the spread of finalists in each county.
Using the last 20 years as a dataset, it can be argued that the Senior Hurling Championship in Clare has been the most competitive since the turn of the millennium. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, the Wexford Senior Football Championship can be deemed the most egalitarian in Ireland.
Although Sixmilebridge have won four of the last seven Clare titles, the competition is still considered to be the most hotly contested in Ireland. Eleven different clubs have lifted the Canon Hamilton Cup since 2000, with a further two reaching the final in that time.
Crusheen, who claimed their first title in 2010 before backing up their triumph the following year, are the only club in Clare to have managed back-to-back championships in the intervening years.
Unlike the halcyon days of the late 90s however, when Clare clubs annexed six Munster titles in a row between ’95 and ’00, only Ballyea in 2016 have been able to replicate those provincial successes.
The Cork SHC has had nine winners and 13 finalists over the past 20 years. Blackrock (‘01, ‘02), Erin’s Own (‘06, ‘07) and Glen Rovers (‘15, ‘16) have all enjoyed brief supremacy. Sarsfields were remarkably consistent for a spell (‘08 ,’10 ,’12, ’14) while most recently, Imokilly have claimed the last three titles.
However, since Newtownshandrum’s provincial and national glory in 2003, only the Glen have reached a Munster Final, suggesting that like in Clare, quality rather than equality has been lacking.
Predictably, the counties with the fewest finalists are those where hurling is a minority sport or confined to localised enclaves. Of the counties outside the highest echelon, only Kerry and Meath have produced more than five county champions in the last 20 years.
Six clubs from North Kerry, a district where the small ball reigns supreme, have claimed county honours since 2000, a healthy return considering the championship is contested between only eight clubs. All eight have reached a final at least once since 2005.
In football, the competitiveness in Wexford may come as a surprise to outsiders. But unlike traditional dual counties, where many clubs cater solely for one code, only the three hurling kingpins — Rathnure, Oulart-the-Ballagh and Buffers Alley — concentrate exclusively on hurling. Amazingly, after 133 years of competition, Castletown and St. John’s Volunteers sit atop the Wexford SFC roll of honour with just 11 championships apiece, a testament to the parity of the club scene.
Four clubs in Wexford — Clongeen (’07), St. Martins (’13), St. James’ (’15) and Shelmaliers (’18) — all won their first titles in the past 20 years.
Competition in Meath has also deepened, with a host of clubs emerging to challenge the traditional powerhouses of Navan O’Mahonys and Skyrne.
Dunshaughlin (’00), Blackhall Gaels (’03), Wolfe Tones (’06), Simonstown Gaels (’16) and Ratoath (’19) all won first titles, though the increase in competition has not translated to the provincial scale, Dunshaughlin (2002) the last Meath Leinster winners.
Of course, competitive club championships are not necessarily compatible with provincial glory, the opposite might even be true. It stands to reason that clubs which dominate their county scenes are better equipped to achieve provincial and national distinction.
Since 2000, Crossmaglen, Dr Crokes and most recently Corofin have all maintained strangleholds on their respective provinces, despite emerging from their county championships relatively unchallenged.
Although one could argue that for clubs such as St. Gall’s of Antrim (13 club championships between ’01 and ’14), Down’s Kilcoo (6 club championships in a row between ’12 and ’16), or Portlaoise (12 club championships between ’07 and ’19), their unopposed command of the club scene has had a detrimental effect on their provincial aspirations over the years.