Friday 21 October 2016

Royal history is within Westmeath's reach ... but will they let it slip again?


(Croke Park, Tom 2.0, Live RTÉ 2)

IT'S safe to assume that everyone, even your new neighbour just landed from Mars, now knows that Westmeath have never beaten Meath in championship. Never, ever, ever.

The same friendly Martian may also have read that Westmeath will "never, ever, ever" have a better opportunity to alter the course of history.

Fact or fiction? Well, more like frothy speculation with just a smidgen of truth.

To say this is Westmeath's big opportunity to end their Royal oppression doesn't really stack with the memories of 2001, when they led an ultimately drawn All-Ireland quarter-final by nine points with 20 minutes elapsed; or of 2003, when Dessie Dolan missed that fateful free.

Nor does it chime with thoughts of Páirc Tailteann on a Saturday night in early March, when Meath pressed on the second half gas to steamroll their oppressed neighbours by 4-10 to 0-11.

Before throw-in, Westmeath actually topped Division Two. Yet, by the time Graham Reilly (1-5 from play) had finished toying with their defence, the rot had set in and Westmeath went into freefall for the rest of the league.

So then, why is a team destined for Division Three, some of whose senior players were questioned in a very public and critical fashion by new manager Tom Cribbin after relegation was confirmed, now being touted as potential history-makers?

Several reasons. First up, Westmeath have regrouped impressively to win their first two SFC outings - against Louth and Wexford - with plenty to spare at the finish.

Secondly, an injury-blighted Meath were vulnerable to an alarming degree - especially in their makeshift defence - against Wicklow. If you can leak 3-12 at home to lowly Division Four strugglers, surely it could be even worse against a revitalised Westmeath that have managed 3-14 and 1-21 in their last two matches?

Steady on. If Westmeath can replicate their blistering Wexford finale over a more sustained period, then that landmark victory could well materialise ... but for long fallow periods of that game they were running up congested cul-de-sacs and they'll need a more sustained performance, too, from their undoubted talisman, John Heslin.

Another factor in Meath's favour? Their injury crisis is abating, with Conor McGill, Bryan Menton, Kevin Reilly and Mickey Newman all deemed fit enough to start.

Their defence has a more solid look and that might just tilt a fascinating contest, leaving the history-chasers bereft for another year at least.

ODDS: Meath 2/5, Draw 10/1, Westmeath 5/2 VERDICT: Meath

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