Saturday 22 October 2016

The west is awake as Antrim doze off

Michael Ryan, Westmeath manager, shares a smile with Derek McNicholas, after been subbed
Michael Ryan, Westmeath manager, shares a smile with Derek McNicholas, after been subbed

MICHAEL RYAN would have settled for a one-point victory beforehand. When the final count was in, and the Cusack Park faithful had stopped shaking their heads at the surreal mystery of it all, the Westmeath hurling manager was celebrating a 17-point landslide.

Not even the British General Election pollsters were so wide of the mark.

Antrim had beaten Laois a week earlier, seemingly putting to bed all the spring talk of crisis. 

Westmeath had edged out Carlow on the same day, but surely they’d have to locate a much higher gear to live with the Saffrons?

Wrong on so many counts. In skiddy conditions precipitated by a pre-match Mullingar monsoon, the hosts hurled not just with a wonderfully controlled aggression (reflected in utter dominance at ‘ruck’ ball) but also with a deftness of touch, a slickness of passing and a generally pinpoint execution that few pundits could have foreseen.


It all resulted in a 1-21 to 0-7 cakewalk that leaves Westmeath with maximum points and one game remaining (away to Laois on Sunday week) in the Leinster SHC qualifying group.  

Win that, and they’ll march on to a provincial quarter-final against Offaly. Even were they to lose, and it all ends with Laois, Westmeath and Antrim tied on four points, the scoring difference damage inflicted yesterday could prove fatal to the Ulster men.

Thus, there is every chance that Westmeath will be playing knockout hurling on June 7 against either Offaly or Wexford. 

And given that yesterday came in the slipstream of a famous Leinster minor quarter-final victory away to Wexford on Saturday, it’s hard to recall a more buoyant weekend in Westmeath hurling history.

“A huge weekend for Westmeath hurling,” enthused Ryan, the former Waterford boss, who confirmed that the minors’ success had delivered a timely psychological boost.

“We met in the hotel this morning and we referred to the fact that the minors had really put it up to us as a group ... and thankfully we matched that.

“Conditions weren’t easy,” Ryan reflected. “Our workrate was fantastic and our use of the ball was very, very good as well. I suppose ’twas a little bit easier than we thought it would be, but we got off to a good start and probably the injury upset Antrim early on.”

He was referring to the suspected dislocated kneecap shipped by Arron Graffin after just five minutes, prompting an eight-minute hold-up. 

“We had them under serious pressure and put a couple of wides ...  I wouldn’t like to use [the injury] as an excuse. We didn’t show up and that’s it,” lamented losing boss Kevin Ryan.

When play resumed, Antrim imploded and Westmeath already led 0-10 to 0-2 before Alan Devine capitalised on Niall O’Brien’s impudent dummy and assist for a 35th minute goal. 

It was 1-13 to 0-2 at the break; the backlash never once threatened.

The winners had a host of players in the zone, notably Shane Power and Aonghus Clarke in defence, Eoin Price at midfield and a dominant half-forward trio of O’Brien, Derek McNicholas and Robbie Greville, while Brendan Murtagh’s target-man influence wasn’t reflected in his 0-1 haul and Devine helped himself to 1-3.

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