'If we get lost in the occasion we'll be wiped,' says fit-again Kieran Gavin
OF all the Westmeath squad, Kieran Gavin is probably the one who knows Dublin better than most.
Not just because he has been the last line of full-back resistance for several big dates with the Dubs, but also because he knows many of Jim Gavin's all-conquering crew from his college days.
The inside track, though, will only get you so far against this multi-pronged machine.
"It's a couple of years now since I was with them," says the man who skippered DCU to Sigerson Cup success in 2012. "Whatever I can offer, I will offer to the lads. I lived with Paul Flynn, played with him for four years; and Dean Rock and James McCarthy and Jonny Cooper.
"You could tell the lads one thing and they (the Dubs) could do something totally different and something outrageous. You just have to treat it as another game."
The very fact of Gavin's involvement in this game must constitute a bonus - both for the Mullingar Shamrocks man and his year-one boss, Tom Cribbin.
He ruptured his Achilles tendon while on club championship duty last August. Over the ensuing 11 months, he hasn't played a solitary minute of competitive football for Westmeath … but he made the bench for the already-famous semi-final coup against Meath, played a full challenge match against Mayo last weekend, and is now considered a 'live' option for a defensive recall .
Straight into the frying pan of a Leinster final against the All-Ireland favourites. No pressure!
"I'm more or less over the injury now and trying to get back as fit as the rest of the lads," says Gavin.
No easy task, given how his colleagues exploded through the finishing tape against both Wexford and Meath, delivering an avalanche of scores in the home straight.
Those impressive stamina levels call to mind a photo from last winter on the Westmeath twitter account, showing the squad going through their paces at dawn.
"That was a cold morning!" Gavin recounts. "I was injured so I missed the early part of the year but I was there that morning. I don't think it's too different to what any other county team is doing, like. Even with the Dublin lads, I lived with a lot of them and they were training at 6.30 in the morning before any other county team was training, and then training in the evening again. I suppose it's just playing catch-up.
"It's the same with any sport - if you work the same as every other team, you're probably just going to get the same results. You have to do something different to get better results … I think the top teams are training harder than everyone, they're training to win, so we're trying to replicate that in some small way."
Speaking of top teams leads neatly onto Dublin. The vast majority view Sunday as unwinnable for Westmeath but Gavin ventures: "It's a final and we have to try and go and win it.
"We celebrated after beating Meath for a couple of days but Tom and the lads were very conscious of getting us back down to earth to try and perform in the final. If we go out and get absolutely hammered by Dublin, it won't really stand for anything beating Meath in a Leinster semi-final. There'll be a little asterisk beside it."
His own history against the Sky Blue has been pretty turbulent. He was full-back for each of Westmeath's last three Leinster clashes with Dublin: Westmeath came within two points in 2008; suffered a mortifying 4-26 to 0-11 defeat in '09; and then lost by 16 points in 2013, Jim Gavin's first championship game at the helm.
"I remember Dublin beat us by 27 points," he says. "Even a couple of years ago, we thought we were all set and going well ... and the next thing it was 10 points to one after 10 minutes (only a slight miscalculation, it was 0-8 to no-score after 22 minutes). "So the first couple of minutes will be absolutely huge psychologically - just to say 'Look, we're in this thing'. They can blow you away and we've all seen that. We're just trying to keep in the game for the first 15 minutes."
If they can stay close for even longer, then surely Westmeath's penchant for high-octane finishes (1-9 in the last 10 minutes against Wexford, 2-8 in the last 20 against Meath) offers some encouragement?
"We're fit and the legs are good ... and the bench is making an impact," Gavin agrees. Cue the inevitable rider: "If we start like (we did against Meath), we all know the game is going to be over and it'll be 20 points down at half-time. We're not going to have anything to claw back."
The former skipper then concludes: "It's a game that we've all been playing since eight years old. We just have to try and treat it as another game because, if we get lost in the occasion, we'll be wiped out."