Raharney’s influential forward Killian Doyle will have a huge say on whether his team retain the Westmeath Senior Hurling Championship this season.

Busy start to 2022 Westmeath senior championships

Between Westmeath’s wonderful Tailteann Cup win – another polite request, please don’t be happy with just second tier success, lads – and the upcoming Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar, the start of the Westmeath championships in adult grades in both codes has gone somewhat under the radar.

With Sam and Liam set for earliest-ever 12 month sojourns in Kerry and Limerick respectively, club games are coming thick and fast. It can’t be easy for sports editors in local newspapers such as this to get the coverage balance right.

Of course, this has to be a better problem than those horrible two years when Covid totally disrupted live sport. It is already hard to credit that an ageing Dublin football team won their sixth Sam in succession, and the aforementioned Limerick hurling team won the first of a hat-trick – and they may not be finished at that – in an empty Croke Park approaching Christmas 2020. Good riddance to that year and to 2021 also.

Midweek games tend to be old news in the following week’s local papers in this era when most news is pretty much instant. And available in a small gadget in your pocket! Already midweek fixtures have taken place in Westmeath football and the pattern will be repeated this evening and tomorrow in the small ball game. At senior level, both football groups are guaranteeing participants five round robin games. Likewise for both the senior ‘A’ and ‘B’ hurling sides.

The system is very fair for all concerned in this scribe’s opinion. Realistically, you can have no complaints about your final position in a table after five matches. Knockout competitions, for all their cut-throat appeal, are now few and far between in Gaelic games. And rightly so given the massive time commitment required of players in this day and age, even at club level where chubby corner forwards being marked by even-chubbier corner backs are a thing of the past.

The relatively new hurling format in the Lake County is admirable. It is only a few years ago since Clonkill could afford to lose three group games and yet emerge as Westmeath Examiner Cup champions. Two defeats in the present format and a team is already looking at getting favours from other teams and/or avoiding relegation, rather than easing into the knockout stages with a bit of a push.

Three teams from the six will contest the business end of the two big hurling championships, with the top side going straight to the decider. Second and third will contest the one semi-final being played. I suspect there would be near-unanimity among Westmeath Gaels that the ‘big three’ of holders Raharney, their predecessors Clonkill, and perennial challengers Castletown-Geoghegan, will occupy the top three slots.

The main dissenting voices will be from specific Gaels, as in those from the Lough Lene area, albeit the Collinstown men were quite fortunate to take a point from unheralded Cullion in last Sunday’s very entertaining first round clash. The latter will face Castlepollard in The Downs tomorrow (Wednesday) evening and the old ‘six-pointer’ cliché already applies to the two participants who are likely to view survival in the top flight as this autumn’s target.

Mullingar hosts two crucial games ahead of the undoubted chaos which will descend on the capital town a few days later. The aforementioned ‘Yellow Bellies’ have a tough ask when opposing Alan Mangan’s wounded charges in black and amber in Lakepoint Park. A social commitment prevented yours truly from seeing Clonkill apparently defeating a strong Castletown side very comfortably on Saturday.The latter are bound to improve.

A half-mile away in TEG Cusack Park, the top two form teams, Raharney and Clonkill, will do battle. There is never a meaningless game between these age-old rivals. The Loughegar men have to play without retired veteran Brendan Murtagh (but will we see him return for the knockout phase?), while his heir apparent as the county’s marquee player, Killian Doyle, is in scintillating form for the Deelsiders.

While there is no such thing as a one-man team (albeit David Clifford is making a fair stab at it in green and gold), the many eyebrows that were raised in the aftermath of The Downs handing out a nice beating to St Loman’s, Mullingar six days ago were dropped again with the news that John Heslin had been absent. Of course, as was pointed out to this observer: ‘He is a forward, not a back, and they conceded 3-14’. The wonderful form of Luke Loughlin makes Lar Wall’s men serious contenders to bridge a 17-year Flanagan Cup famine, and his recovery from an injury sustained while hurling for Clonkill will be crucial to The Downs’ hopes.

Football takes centre stage next weekend – well the Fleadh does, literally and metaphorically – and a little more shape will be on both Sections ‘A’ and ‘B’ thereafter. All logic suggests that Declan Kelly’s blue-clad outfit will still reach at least a quarter-final (the third and fourth sides in Section 'A' do so, with first and second straight through to the penultimate round) and they will be a different proposition at that juncture. Coralstown/Kinnegad are also seriously in the hunt this year after a lot of underage success.

In Section 'B', where the top two reach quarter-finals, Tyrrellspass are always capable of competing with the best, while Killucan have started brightly, albeit their huge dependence on Raharney hurlers will make for a very busy time for their many dual players. Rosemount and Tang look likely to struggle after pointless tallies from their opening brace of games.

And what colour ribbons will be adorn the county’s two blue riband trophies come early October? Fittingly, blue by two, perhaps (with both champions retaining their crowns).