At this stage, they have earned the right to be considered the top four in club hurling, from a provincial (and Galway) perspective anyway. They’re all still going strong in 2022 but there were stages last Sunday when the status of that top four was under serious threat.
Ballygunner trailed Na Piarsaigh by five points at half-time of the Munster semi-final. St Thomas’ were four points down against Loughrea late on in the Galway final. Yet Ballygunner progressed while St Thomas’ went ahead before Loughrea forced a draw to bring the match to a replay tomorrow. Still on track.
When Ballygunner, Ballyhale, St Thomas’ and Slaughtneil lined up in the All-Ireland semi-finals in January, it wasn’t unrealistic to expect all four sides to be back on the same stage again 12 months later. Every county and provincial championship is loaded with trip-wires and booby-traps, but all four clubs have had such a grip on their own county that it would have been more of a prudent than an outlandish bet.
Three of those four sides were in the last four in 2019, and 2020. It could have been all four too in January 2020 only Ballygunner narrowly lost the Munster final to Borris-Ileigh. After such impressive county final wins in the autumn of 2020, it may have been all four too in 2021 if there had been an All-Ireland club championship.
There was a period in the early 2000s when Athenry, Birr and Dunloy kept showing up in the last four. But there was still only one year when all three were semi-finalists in the same season. In the history of the All-Ireland club championship, there has never been such a sustained period where four teams have had a grip, or a perceived stranglehold, on their county and province at the same time.
Slaughtneil have already secured ten in a row in Derry and are back in another Ulster final. Ballygunner have won nine in a row in Waterford and have progressed to a fifth successive Munster final. Ballyhale became the first side in Kilkenny to win five in a row last month, while they are now seeking to win a fourth successive Leinster title. St Thomas’ were only the third side in the history of the competition to secure a four-in-a-row in Galway last year, while the five-in-a-row is still on.
St Thomas’ know that the well will run dry soon, but they have still continued to defy the numbers game by continually regenerating the team. Slaughtneil and Ballyhale are rural clubs too but Ballyhale are the standout example of how generational sinews keep stitching successful teams together, borrowing from a unique genetic inheritance and the richest gene pool in the country.
Ballygunner are different in that they are an urban superpower but rich family connections are still driving their success; Philip, Pauric, Mikey and Kevin Mahony are brothers, are as Stephen, Billy and Darragh O’Keeffe. Shane O’Sullivan had six nephews playing alongside him last week - the four Mahonys, Tadgh Foley and Patrick Fitzgerald – along with another nephew – Barry O’Sullivan – on the bench.
All four trains are still rolling. On Sunday, St Thomas’ take on Loughrea again while Ballyhale play Naas in a Leinster semi-final in Croke Park. Ballygunner go up against Ballyea next Saturday in Thurles while Slaughtneil take on Dunloy in Armagh the following day.
There are no guarantees that the top four will return to the last four in the country once more. But at least they’re all still on track.
In an interview with Kenny Archer in the ‘Irish News’ this week, James Ferguson was keen to emphasise that Enniskillen Gaels’ Ulster semi-final against All-Ireland champions Kilcoo this evening is anything but a free shot for the Fermanagh champions.
“No way are we or am I taking this as a free shot,” he said. "You don't want boys to take too much pressure off themselves and think that if you go a few points down 'Ah, well, it's a free crack at them, we're not expected to win'. Internally, you are confident. There's everything at stake.”
Kilcoo are raging favourites but Enniskillen have every right to believe they are capable of causing a shock, especially with their history in this competition. The Gaels may have never won Ulster but the side that won six Fermanagh titles in-a-row between 1998-2003 went closer than any Fermanagh side; Enniskillen lost the 1999 final to Crossmaglen by one point, before losing the 2002 decider to Errigal Ciarán by two points.
Many of the current generation though, have experience of winning a provincial title, having won the Ulster club minor title in 2017, when defeating Derry’s Ballinascreen in the final. Seven of the Gaels players which started that minor final in January 2018 - Eoin Beacom, Callum Jones, John Reihill, Jonny Cassidy, Brandon Horan, Conor Love and Cian Newman - also featured against Gowna two weeks ago.
Enniskillen are brimming with confidence and momentum after beating Gowna on penalties in the quarter-final but they also carry that swagger and belief that town teams invariably possess. For years though, the Gales had lost more than just that confidence. After securing the 2006 county title, the club hit a slope and couldn’t stop sliding.
As well as slipping into Intermediate, there were two occasions in the last decade when Enniskillen found themselves in relegation playoffs to go down from Intermediate to Junior. In one of those wins, the Gaels needed a last minute goal from Paul Gunn – part of the current management – against Newtownbutler to keep them up.
Enniskillen only came back up to senior two years ago but they went straight into the senior final last year, which they lost to Derrygonnelly Harps by nine points.
Derrygonnelly went on to reach the Ulster final, but the Gaels stopped Derrygonnelly’s bid for a seventh title in eight years back in October when taking them out in the Fermanagh semi-final by one point.
Their underage scene is thriving. They have dominated the Junior championship in Fermanagh and the senior squad is teeming with players. The biggest test of all though, awaits them this evening in the form of Kilcoo. The All-Ireland champions hammered Derrygonnelly by 16 points last year, restricting the Fermanagh side to just 0-3. It’s a big ask for Enniskillen now but they have no fear.
In the shadow of Mount Brandon and the Blackstairs mountains and on a valley above the river Barrow, the St Mullins parish sits on the tip of the wedge between Kilkenny and Wexford. Gowran is just seven miles to the west while Rathnure lies on the other side of the Blackstairs. In hurling’s pocket atlas though, that rich strip of hurling heartland has often struggled to make its name fully known.
It emphatically did though, three years ago when St Mullins turned over Cuala in the Leinster hurling quarter-final by one point. Cuala, double All-Ireland champions in 2017 and 2018, had beaten St Mullins in the 2016 campaign by 12 points but the Carlow side used that experience to their full advantage in the 2019 provincial quarter-final.
St Mullins backed it up in the semi-final two weeks later when beating Rathdowney-Errill before putting up a respectable showing in the final against Ballyhale Shamrocks, with the then reigning All-Ireland champions winning by nine points.
In the lead up to that provincial final, Marty Kavanagh spoke about the belief in the squad, and how that conviction had driven them to victory against Cuala. "It was a matter of being in that game in the second half,” said Kavanagh. “We knew we had a bit of experience, and that we could turn them over.”
It has taken until now though, for St Mullins to get back to that level. They didn’t reach the county final in 2020 while they lost last year’s final to Mount Leinster Rangers by eight points. Yet their form this year has been much more impressive, especially in Carlow where they beat Bagenalstown Gaels in the county final by 17 points.
Victory against Ferns St Aidan’s two weeks ago secured St Mullins’ passage through to Sunday's semi-final against Kilmacud Crokes. This will be only the fifth time a Carlow club has made it as far as a Leinster semi-final but some of those previous odysseys involved big scalps against Dublin clubs along the way.
Taking on Kilmacud will be another huge challenge but St Mullins have been down this road before. And they will be confident on drawing from that successful past experience against Dublin clubs.