Murtagh leads the way as hurlers take league honours

Westmeath 2-12  Dublin 0-12

It was a case of mission accomplished for Westmeath at the Gaelic Grounds last Sunday, as goals either side of half-time by John Shaw and Derek McNicholas set up this NHL Division 2 final victory over Carlow.

However, Westmeath`s fitful performance left a lot to be desired and a huge improvement will be required if the Lakemen are to stand a realistic chance of defeating Dublin in the Leinster championship. Johnny Dooley`s side possessed the classier hurlers and always looked capable of stepping up a gear, but they struggled to put Carlow away and really only played in patches.

With full-back Paul Greville delivering a man-of-the-match display, the Westmeath defence had reason to be fairly satisfied with their day`s work. Greville received able support from corner-backs Greg Gavin and Conor Jordan, while goalkeeper Mark Briody was solid and sharp throughout. Darren McCormack mopped up a good deal of ball at centre half-back, but the wing-backs and midfielders will need to offer more in a ball-winning capacity when it comes to the far more demanding challenge against Dublin in the championship.

Fresh from an outstanding performance in the semi-final win over Down, team captain Brendan Murtagh finished the day with seven points, although he was less prominent in the second half on this occasion. Goalscorers John Shaw and Derek McNicholas showed some classy touches, but Westmeath will need them to be more involved over the whole game in the championship clash with the Dubs. Both wing-forwards, Paddy Dowdall and Enda Loughlin, scored two points from play and were quite industrious in general play. Youthful corner-forward Niall Kilcoyne didn`t show the form he is capable of, and was substituted in the first half, although his replacement, veteran Barry Kennedy, was unable to make any meaningful impact either.

This Division 2 final was followed by the Division 1 decider between Tipperary and Galway, and the double bill drew a crowd of 16,364 to Limerick GAA headquarters. Indeed, the attendance may have been more substantial had admission prices been more reasonable (stand tickets cost €30). Westmeath and Carlow had already secured their place in the new, streamlined Division 2 for next season, but both sides were, no doubt, keen to pick up some silverware ahead of their respective championship campaigns.

Backed by the slight breeze in the first half, Westmeath went 0-3 to 0-0 ahead with early points from Brendan Murtagh (two) and Derek McNicholas. Murtagh opened the scoring in the third minute with a point from close to the right touchline, and McNicholas fired over from close range a minute later. Good play from Paddy Dowdall then set up the impressive Murtagh for his second.

Carlow got off the mark in the ninth minute with a fine point from wing-forward Mark Brennan, but Westmeath really should have been further ahead at this stage, as they hit five wides inside the opening ten minutes. In the tenth minute, Murtagh landed a free from just inside the Carlow half, following a foul on Darren McCormack, and Enda Loughlin soon added point to leave Westmeath four points ahead (0-5 to 0-1). On 13 minutes, Carlow centre-back Shane Kavanagh sent over a free, before another long-range free by Murtagh restored Westmeath`s four-point cushion.

However, Westmeath`s performance level then dipped alarmingly and they endured a barren spell which allowed Carlow to gain a real foothold. Carlow began to mop up a great deal of possession in the middle third of the field and, indeed, they reeled over four points on the trot between the 17th and 29th minutes.

The first two of that quartet came from frees (both scored by Brendan Lawler) as Westmeath began to concede some unnecessary frees, with Paul Greville fortunate to escape with a `tick` after a wild pull. Carlow midfielder Damien Roberts and wing-forward Paul Kehoe were also on target during this purple patch for the Barrowsiders.

Westmeath`s second-quarter lethargy helped Carlow to draw level (0-6 apiece), and Jim Greene`s charges had cause to believe an upset could be on the cards. But, perhaps sensing impending danger, Westmeath managed to regain the upper-hand before half-time.

A clever pass by John Shaw set up Brendan Murtagh for his fifth point and, in the 31st minute, Shaw struck for a vital goal.

The full-forward did extremely well to win back possession for his side, and he capped off this fine piece of work by heading goalwards and firing an unstoppable shot high into the Carlow net. In the 34th minute, Westmeath wing-forward Paddy Dowdall showed a great turn of pace to cut through the Carlow defence, before driving the sliotar over the bar. That gave Westmeath a 1-8 to 0-6 lead at the interval, after a half in which Westmeath registered nine wides as opposed to Carlow`s four.

Within 20 seconds of the restart, Westmeath struck for a second goal and, from that moment onwards, there only looked like being one winner, despite Carlow`s spirited efforts. This second green flag had a touch of good fortune about it. A point attempt by Enda Loughlin came back into play off a combination of Carlow goalie Mark Ryan and the crossbar, and Derek McNicholas was ideally placed to whip the sliotar first time to the net.

A 40th minute free by Brendan Murtagh, from just inside the 65-metre line, put Westmeath nine points clear (2-9 to 0-6), and one sensed the midlanders already had one hand on the cup. Brendan Lawler struck over a free before Murtagh replied with another point. Lawler was soon replaced and fellow corner-forward Ruairí Dunbar took over the freetaking duties, pointing from the right with his first attempt.

Carlow substitute Karl English hit a good point in the 51st minute but it was obvious that the men in red, yellow and green needed at least one goal if they were to stand any chance of turning the game around. One of their best chances came after Darren McCormack was penalised for `steps` when bringing the ball out of defence. Dunbar went for goal from the close range free and although his shot was poorly struck, the rebound came to English, who swung first time but his shot was blocked, and the ball was eventually scrambled wide.

Carlow refused to throw in the towel but outstanding Westmeath full-back Paul Greville continually snuffed out their attacks and, with the outcome in little or no doubt, the game became quite lacklustre. In the 62nd minute, Enda Loughlin sent over his second point to leave Westmeath leading 2-11 to 0-9. Westmeath substitute and Athlone-based teacher, Leo Smith was then off target from a scoreable position, following a one-two with Brendan Murtagh.

In the 63rd minute, Paddy Dowdall completed Westmeath`s scoring tally when he sent over his second point.

To their credit, Carlow continued their efforts until the bitter end. In the 65th minute, influential midfielder Damien Roberts scored his second point, before Paul Greville caught the ball close to his own goals and brought the ball away from the danger area. Ruairí Dunbar blasted over another point and the same player had a late chance of scoring a consolation goal, when a penalty was awarded after a foul on centre-forward Robert Foley. Dunbar`s 73rd minute penalty was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Mark Briody, to leave Westmeath winners on a final score of 2-12 to 0-12. Afterwards, Westmeath captain Brendan Murtagh was presented with the winners` trophy.

Scorers: Westmeath: B. Murtagh 0-7 (3f); D, McNicholas 1-1; J. Shaw 1-0; P. Dowdall, E. Loughlin 0-2 each; Carlow: R. Dunbar 0-3 (1f, 1pen); B. Lawler 0-3 (3f); D. Roberts 0-2; M. Brennan, P. Kehoe, K. English 0-1 each; S. Kavanagh 0-1f.

Westmeath: Mark Briody; Greg Gavin, Paul Greville, Conor Jordan; Dermot Curley, Darren McCormack, Adam Price; Pat Clarke, Brian Connaughton; Paddy Dowdall, Brendan Murtagh, Enda Loughlin; Niall Kilcoyne, John Shaw, Derek McNicholas. Subs: Barry Kennedy for Kilcoyne (27 mins); Leo Smith for Clarke (35); Andrew Mitchell for McNicholas (56); Joe Clarke for Loughlin (60).

Carlow: Mark Ryan; Andrew Gaul, Michael Ryan, John Rodgers; Edward Coady, Shane Kavanagh, Richard Coady; James Hickey, Damien Roberts; Paul Kehoe, Robert Foley, Mark Brennan; Ruairí Dunbar, Seamus Murphy, Brendan Lawler. Subs: Craig Doyle for Kehoe (h-t); Karl English for Lawler (53 mins); Joe Wat