Photo: Irish Mirror (Inpho)
This summer is turning out to be an interesting one for counties in Connacht. For only the second time ever since the current championship dispensation came into being in 2001, the province has three teams in the last eight. This year will also be the second time since then that a team from the province is guaranteed to be in the semi-finals before a ball is kicked at all in this year’s All-Ireland Series.
On Sunday – for the first time ever – three teams from Connacht will share the billing in a championship double-header at Croke Park. As well as that, our 4pm clash on that day with Roscommon will be the first ever one featuring two Connacht counties in the championship at HQ.
So there’s no denying these are heady times for the province. In contrast to Leinster and Munster – both now firmly in one-county-rule territory – and arguably with Ulster too, where the long established dog-eat-dog early summer competitiveness is on the wane, football in Connacht is on the up.
The days of our dominance in the West are over and Galway’s takeover proved to be a short-lived affair too. Three different winners of the Nestor Cup in three years gives Connacht the justifiable claim to be the most competitive of the four provinces right now.
This throws up an interesting sub-plot to this year’s championship, one that Connacht counties don’t normally get to be involved in. This is the he-who-laughs-last-laughs-longest twist to the story, one that Cork and Kerry, as well as a good few of the Ulster counties, know plenty about.
It involves the continuation of hostilities between provincial rivals after the early season silverware has been handed over. These battles have twice – in 2003 and again in 2009 – extended as far as All-Ireland final day itself. In 2009, Cork claimed the spoils in Munster but it was Kerry who carted off the silverware when the two Southern heavyweights squared off for a second time in the year that September.
We’ve had two big Connacht showdowns so far this year. I recall the night we did the Mayo News podcast with the Galway lads ahead of the match in Pearse Stadium where we all readily – far too readily, it subsequently transpired – agreed that this clash between our respective counties was going to be the real Connacht final.
It wasn’t, of course, and fair play to Roscommon for putting Galway – and by extension us as well – to rights on that one. Their win was, of course, the one and only Connacht final of the year and they have the Nestor Cup in their possession as proof of this. No-one can deny them this.
But the presence of three Connacht counties in the All-Ireland Series this year means that our internecine squabbles are now set to get a fresh airing on the national stage. On Sunday, ourselves and the neighbours will approach this novel clash at HQ with a few things to prove, both to each other and to the wider world, even if, for both of us, our main aim will be to secure that precious place in the last four in this year’s championship.
For Roscommon, there’s the chance to embellish further their provincial title success by claiming a first championship win over us since 2001. For us, there’s the opportunity of showing the neighbours with all their expansive talk what it’s really like when you try mixing it with the big boys in the wide open spaces of Croke Park.
The gas thing is that Sunday’s showdown might not even be the final word in terms of tussles between Connacht rivals this year. Our match will see one county from Connacht go forward to the All-Ireland semi-final stage but when the ball is thrown in for our match there’s a chance that the prize on offer for the winners will be the right to meet Galway then. That’d be some crack if it happened.
So, although this year’s Connacht championship is over and the Rossies are worthy Nestor Cup winners this year, the fun and games involving Connacht counties in direct competition with each other looks like it still has a bit of a way to run. Sunday should tell us how far and it could also – depending on how both matches go – confirm which of us can really claim to be the top dogs of the West this year.