In terms of data, the provincial numbers mostly make sense when it comes to the volume of football winners. Leinster, with 12 counties, naturally has had more winners (25) than any other province, while the rest of the provinces also more or less add up. Ulster have had 20 different winners, Munster have had 19 with Connacht on 21.
Ulster though, is a little bit off kilter, not just because there are more counties than in Connacht and Munster but because of the perceived competitiveness in that province even compared to Connacht and Munster.
Nemo Rangers (17 Munster titles) and Corofin (10) and Clann nan Gael (7) with a combined 17 Connacht titles have dominated those provinces but Munster and Connacht have still had effectively the same amount of provincial winners as Ulster.
Crossmaglen Rangers clearly skew those figures with 11 Ulster titles but there has still been a dominant theme throughout that championship; when a team reaches a point of domination, it has been hard to stop them.
St Mary’s Burren won five titles in six years between 1983-’88; Clan na Gael (Armagh) won three in-a-row between 1972-’74 while Scotstown also managed that feat between 1978-’80. Bryansford won their two titles in successive years (1969-’70), while Lavey won two in three years between 1990-’92.
It’s been more prominent than ever in recent years, and not just because of Crossmaglen’s dominance. Since The Loup defied all the odds in 2003, the title has been won by just six different clubs in the last 18 years; Crossmaglen, St Gall’s, Ballinderry, Slaughtneil, Gweedore and Kilcoo.
Ballinderry and Gweedore only won one title in that period but the other four clubs were multiple winners. After Slaughtneil won three titles in four years between 2014-’17, Kilcoo are in that flux of dominance now as they are seeking to become the fifth club (after Cross, Burren, Scotstown and Clan na Gael) to win the three in-a-row (there was no competition in 2020). They defeated Enniskillen Gaels on Saturday but the Down champions face a Glen side now in the final that pushed them all the way in last year’s semi-final.
After last year’s titanic battle, which Kilcoo won after extra-time, Ulster has got the final everyone expected. Kilcoo were devastating at times on Saturday evening but Glen are a quality young side deemed good enough to win Ulster and rattle an All-Ireland. So will there be a new winner in two weeks? Or will Kilcoo just continue that trend of a team on top in Ulster staying on top?
In early October 2015, the Kilkenny GAA Twitter handle posted a photograph of James Burke from Naas being presented with the U16A Kilkenny league title by the then Kilkenny chairperson before offering their congratulations to Naas on their win against Ballyhale Shamrocks.
It wasn’t just any win either because the scoreline jumped off the page – 6-12 to 0-6. The gap would have been even bigger again only for some outstanding goalkeeping from Dean Mason. That match may have been on in Naas but it wasn’t a fluke either as Naas came along two years later and beat Ballyhale in the Kilkenny minor league.
Kilkenny have always had a brilliant attitude towards neighbouring counties by allowing them to play in certain competitions. When Mount Leinster Rangers from Carlow reached the 2014 All-Ireland final, they often referenced the exposure and belief playing in the Kilkenny Junior leagues granted them.
Ned Nolan from the Black and Whites club in Kilkenny first recommended to let the Carlow clubs play in the Kilkenny junior league and MLR really profited from that experience. MLR proved that they could beat those Kilkenny sides, as did many of these Naas players during their underage days. Five of the players which featured in that U16 final against Ballyhale seven years ago also played in Sunday's Leinster semi-final; James Burke, Rian Boran, Kevin Aherne, Harry Carroll and Rian Monaghan. Ballyhale also had five players from that U-16 final on show; Dean Mason, Eoin Cody, Evan Shefflin, Darragh Corcoran and Eoin Kenneally.
That day did help to inspire a generation of Naas hurlers that they could achieve more, which this group certainly has, having won four-in-a-row in Kildare along with last year’s Leinster and All-Ireland Intermediate title.
Naas defeated Kilkenny opposition in Glenmore en route to that success but Ballyhale in Croke Park in a Leinster semi-final was always going to be a whole different challenge. Naas led by six points after the first quarter but Ballyhale forced an 18-point swing on the scoreboard to eventually win by 12.
Back in January, the All-Ireland Intermediate hurling semi-finals produced the most open and novel All-Ireland Intermediate championship since 2011. The competition has been dominated by Kilkenny clubs, which have won six of the last 12 titles, but last year’s campaign had a completely different vibe, especially in the provinces.
When Banagher defeated Lisbellaw St Patrick’s from Fermanagh in the Ulster final, they became the first Derry club to win the title. After Naas won their first provincial title, they became just the second Kildare club – and the first since Ardclough in 2006 – to win Leinster.
It was unusual for a Mayo club to be the most experienced of the semi-finalists but that’s the space Tooreen now occupy. Since defeating Ballindereen to become the first non-Galway club to win the Connacht title in 2017, Tooreen have firmly established themselves as a powerhouse in the Connacht IHC.
Yesterday, Tooreen reaffirmed their powerhouse status in the provincial competition by winning a third Connacht Intermediate title in-a-row, defeating Galway side Killimor by 0-22 to 1-15 in Athleague.
Yet the next giant step Tooreen are desperate to make is to reach Croke Park. In 2018, they lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny champions, St Patrick’s Ballyragget, while they narrowly went down to Cork’s Fr O’Neill’s at the same stage two years later.
Last year, Naas beat Tooreen in the semi-final by five points before going on to win the final. Those recent defeats have shown how close Tooreen have been to the summit, but, once again, at least they have given themselves a chance to clear that All-Ireland semi-final hurdle. And once again, the Mayo side will be the most experienced side in the last four.