Senior hurlers badly in need of a morale-boosting win

Gerry Buckley

With a heavy heart, I have to confess that midway through the second half of Westmeath’s 19-point hammering by Antrim in Corrigan Park last month I turned to a fellow-scribe and asked him was there relegation from the Joe McDonagh Cup in this zany year.

My friend was unsure, and it was with a less heavy heart that I texted him soon afterwards to state that our mutual friend Mr Google confirmed that, regardless of results, the four teams which don’t win this year’s tier two championship are guaranteed to retain their status in 2021 and will be joined by both finalists from the Christy Ring Cup to make a six-team competition (assuming, of course, that our mutual enemy Mr Covid permits same). The promoted teams will be Kildare and Down after their totally expected and totally unexpected semi-final victories respectively last Saturday against Roscommon and once-mighty Offaly.

My relegation query shows how poor the visitors had been in Belfast, albeit against a skilful and very physical team from the Glens. Six days later, Kerry exited TEG Cusack Park after an 11-point triumph – what a fabulous hurler Shane Conway is – and those who hadn’t checked out possible relegation would have done so at that juncture, despite an improvement in the display of the men in maroon and white.

Antrim and Kerry have always been around Westmeath’s standard and an average of 15-point losses is simply not acceptable. Yes, the aforementioned Covid-19, injuries (and the list has increased with each match), retirement (the ultra-consistent Paul Greville), and emigration (Gary Greville and especially Killian Doyle who averaged an exact 15-point haul in his tour de force in last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup) have played their part in our sub-standard displays.

Throw in a suspension to the mix, with Niall O’Brien’s unnecessary red card against Kerry ruling him out for next Saturday’s fixture in Navan, and it is clear that Shane O’Brien has undoubtedly been dealt a cruel hand of cards, especially given how short a run-in he had after the local club championships ended. Also, the paperwork for his ‘signing’ of former Galway star Davy Glennon wasn’t finalised in time for the talented Tribesman to switch from one maroon and white jersey to the other.

The Dublin teacher deserves credit for the play-off win against Carlow in the days prior up to the ‘arrival’ of the global pandemic. It guaranteed Division 1 hurling again next year (see ‘mutual enemy’ line above), but his troops certainly can’t afford to face into the lion’s den of the top teams in the country next spring (approximately!) after a winless championship campaign.

The general consensus before a ball was pucked in anger in the Joe McDonagh Cup was that there would be very little between Antrim, Kerry, Carlow and ourselves, with Meath likely to be tailed off somewhat. However, our two performances to date have been poor (some journalists might go stronger), while the Royals came very close to a shock result away to Carlow (a one-point loss) after an opening round ten-point defeat at the hands of Kerry in Tralee. We are both on the depressing ‘nul points’ mark (I missed the Eurovision Song Contest this year!), but their minus-11 score difference compares very favourably with our minus-30.

With a Westmeath man at the helm in Raharney’s Nick Weir, the green and gold-clad side will not lack for motivation next Saturday in Páirc Tailteann. Antrim’s win against Kerry in Corrigan Park last Saturday ended the already-miniscule chance of O’Brien’s troops making the final, a likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in Croke Park on hurling’s blue riband occasion, with the Joe McDonagh Cup final having been granted curtain-raiser status ahead of the Liam MacCarthy Cup decider in the rearranged fixture list.

While prior to June 28, 2015 Westmeath Gaels were well used to being the butt of our eastern neighbours’ jokes about our footballers’ inability to defeat them in senior championship action, our hurlers have usually been well able for Meath in the small ball game. All that is at stake for both counties on Saturday will be pride and invaluable competitive match practice ahead of next year’s uncertain National League campaigns. It would be a hammer blow for the future of hurling in the Lake County to end a year which started with competitive games/generally decent displays against Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and Limerick by losing tamely to Meath and Carlow.

Despite all the undoubted setbacks which Westmeath have suffered in recent weeks, the bainisteoir and his high-profile management team must somehow conjure up two huge performances over the next fortnight to salvage some pride. Saturday next at 1.30pm in Navan would be a good place to start.

Westmeath v. Meath, previous senior hurling championship meetings:

15/6/1919, Killyon, Meath 5-2, Westmeath 0-2 (L)

5/6/1921, Killucan, Meath 4-4, Westmeath 2-6 (L)

16/5/1937, Cusack Park, Westmeath 10-7, Meath 4-2 (L)

8/5/1938, Cusack Park, Westmeath 5-4, Meath 4-3 (L)

7/5/1939, Navan, Meath 6-4, Westmeath 1-3 (L)

5/5/1940, Cusack Park, Westmeath 5-7, Meath 2-1 (L)

16/5/1943, Trim, Meath 6-7, Westmeath 5-1 (L)

13/5/1945, Trim, Westmeath 2-7, Meath 1-4 (L)

22/5/1949, Trim, Meath 6-10, Westmeath 3-2 (L)

3/5/1953, Cusack Park, Meath 3-13, Westmeath 2-4 (L)

29/4/1956, Tullamore, Westmeath 9-6, Meath 6-1 (L)

14/4/1957, Cusack Park, Westmeath 3-7, Meath 4-2 (L)

3/6/1984, Navan, Westmeath 2-14, Meath 1-13 (B)

26/6/1993, Tullamore, Meath 2-17, Westmeath 1-12 (B)

30/4/1994, Trim, Meath 3-10, Westmeath 1-8 (L)

26/5/1996, Castletown-Geoghegan, Meath 2-11, Westmeath 1-5 (L)

18/6/2005, Navan, Meath 3-16, Westmeath 2-10 (CR)

16/6/2007, Navan, Westmeath 1-19, Meath 2-16 (draw) (CR)

14/5/2017, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 1-18, Meath 0-19 (L)

13/5/2018, TEG Cusack Park, Westmeath 4-24, Meath 2-17 (JMcD)

(L) = Leinster SHC; (B) = All-Ireland SH ‘B’ C; (CR) = Christy Ring Cup; (JMcD) = Joe McDonagh Cup

As can be seen above, Westmeath won the corresponding fixture two years ago by 13 points. The details were as follows:

Scorers - Westmeath: A Devine 2-2 (0-2fs), A Clarke 0-7, E Price, N O’Brien (2fs) 0-5 each, R Greville 1-1, C Doyle 0-3, N Mitchell 1-0, D McNicholas 0-1. Meath: J Regan 1-2 (0-2fs), A Douglas 1-1, P Conneely (1f), J Kelly, D Kelly (2fs) 0-3 each, C McCabe, M O’Sullivan 0-2 each, S Quigley 0-1.

Westmeath: Paddy Carroll; Shane Power, Tommy Doyle, Gary Greville; Liam Varley, Paul Greville, Derek McNicholas; Eoin Price, Cormac Boyle; Ciaran Doyle, Aonghus Clarke, Allan Devine; Niall O’Brien, Niall Mitchell, Robbie Greville. Subs used: Aaron Craig for Varley (50), John Gilligan for McNicholas (54), Darragh Clinton for Boyle (59), Joey Boyle for C Doyle (65), Plunkett Maxwell for Price (68).

Meath: Shane McGann; Niall Weir, Seán Geraghty, Darragh Kelly; Joe Keena, Damien Healy, Keith Keoghan; Sean Quigley, Steven Morris; Cathal McCabe, James Kelly, Patrick Conneely; Alan Douglas, Colm Ó Mealóid, Jack Regan.

Subs used: Adam Gannon for Quigley (26), Pauric Kelly for Regan (h-t), Mark O’Sullivan for Ó Mealóid (h-t), Shane Brennan for Healy (h-t), Eamonn Ó Donnchadha for Morris (46).