Galway’s 15 years chasing the eastern promise of consistency

The Tribesmen have contested Leinster since 2009 and there is little doubt that it has been an improvement on the previous dysfunction

No one could accuse Galway of being obstructive when it came to championship reform. From 1996, the county willingly acceded to every change of format even though each one pushed their hurlers incrementally farther and farther away from where they had started as automatic All-Ireland semi-finalists nearly every year.

There was a couple of years as automatic quarter-finalists, followed by a spell entering the qualifiers against one of the lowliest ranked teams and a brief period in the prototype round-robin series.

Finally they migrated to the east and this is the 15th year of Galway’s residency in Leinster.

That migration definitely solved a problem for Leinster where Kilkenny’s domination was killing interest in the provincial championship. Galway were a big county and added novelty even if success didn’t come in a cascade, but has the new arrangement worked for the migrants?


There have been differences of opinion on adding the underage teams from the west but bit by bit they have all made it with the minors coming in this year and talk – so far unrealised – of Galway clubs contesting Leinster as well.

Current county chair Paul Bellew has no doubts about the success of the venture, especially since the current round-robin provincial structure has meant that home matches – long withheld – were a necessary addition. They are the only side in the country unbeaten at home in the three years of round-robin provincial championships.

“On the field, I think the impact has been very beneficial in getting us up to a level of competitive consistency that we probably haven’t seen in Galway hurling since the 1980s,” Bellew says.

“The return might be small in some ways, three provincial titles, but it was a big influence in reaching the high point of the All-Ireland in 2017.”

He is particularly unimpressed by the view that Galway’s essential inconsistency appears to have gone unsolved since 2009. Scattered along the way are Leinster finals – like last year’s – and other matches when the county underperformed.

“The facts bear it out. If you go back to the Leinster final in 2016 and take the final championship matches since, you will struggle to find a game that Galway weren’t involved in right until the end or lost by more than three points.

“It’s something that’s gone under the radar but the argument that Galway have been inconsistent is a lazy one in my view when you see the level we’ve been hurling at for the past eight years.

“There may be disappointment in terms of results but we’ve come up against some good teams in those years.”

Bellew has a point about the incremental improvement. Since 2016, Galway’s “destination” matches – after which they have exited the championship – have been lost by an average of 0-2, which contrasts with the previous seven years’ average of 0-6 that featured a couple of hammerings.

It is also true that Galway have competed at a significantly higher level in the last seven years, a period when only two of their destination matches have been earlier than All-Ireland semi-finals and during which they finally regained Liam MacCarthy.

Of the previous seven years, only two of their destination matches were later than All-Ireland quarterfinals.

Tony Óg Regan played for Galway either side of the Leinster involvement, captaining the team and getting nominated for an All Star. He explains how before his county made the move, their schedule and preparation was dysfunctional.

“In my first season, we beat Clare in the first qualifier and ended up playing Tipp in a prelim quarter-final and losing it a fortnight later, and that was your summer done probably before July,” Regan recalls.

“After that there would be a lot of unrest. Managers got criticised and players got criticised. ‘Galway aren’t producing on top of their underage success’ and you’d hear that every summer.

“You go back training and it would be five months later. You’re trying to change the script again but the script is very much the same. You have your league programme – we won the league in 2004 and had another seven or eight weeks to fill in.

“Then we played Down in a qualifier – went up there for a weekend and underperformed, probably – and then you’re meeting Kilkenny in the next round and getting turned over by 19 points. And you’re thinking, ‘Jeez, we’re even farther off it this year’.

“Thankfully the Leinster opportunity came shortly afterwards and you had a smaller window after the league. You knew that you’d be playing good teams. It was really exciting that we were going to be entering the championship at the same time as everyone else.”

Bellew also believes that the underage integration – he would also like to see Galway referees officiating in Leinster – will have a knock-on effect, producing more rounded players for senior.

“We played seven games in the Leinster championship last year, six at senior and one at under-20,” Bellew explains.

“We’ve already played seven this year, between minor, under-20 and senior and by the end of the campaign I hope that we will have played 18 games in the Leinster championship. I’d be very surprised if that doesn’t develop Galway hurling.”

The county heads for Kilkenny on Sunday, looking to wrap up qualification as soon as possible after last week’s defeat of Wexford. During the years of Paul Bellew’s metric, since the 2016 Leinster final, Galway have lost just two of the seven matches between the counties, having won just one of the previous nine since entering the province. They’re getting the hang of it.