A 70-minute performance is a must for Dolan’s charges
When Westmeath and Armagh met in the All-Ireland Qualifiers in 2018 in TEG Cusack Park, the Orchard County were emphatic winners, 3-16 to 1-11.
Five years on, both counties have gone on a different trajectory. In terms of progress, Armagh, under the guidance of former player, Kieran McGeeney, are certainly ahead. They contested the recent Ulster final against Derry (last year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists) and lost out only after a historic penalty shoot-out, giving them the unwanted accolade of being the first ever county to lose a provincial final in such cruel circumstances. The rights and wrongs of that are for another day - their overall performance in that entertaining Ulster decider suggests Westmeath face a huge task on Saturday.
Westmeath have traditionally found Ulster opponents very uncompromising and the trip to the Gaelic Grounds doesn’t do much to set the pulses racing, especially after a disappointing league campaign and a second half collapse against Louth in the Leinster Championship. New Westmeath manager, Dessie Dolan will be keen to ensure his side put in a 70-minute performance this time out and they have had five weeks since that Leinster quarter-final defeat to prepare for the All-Ireland series.
In the intervening period, Westmeath have played challenge games and worked really hard to improve on what went wrong after such a positive start against Louth in Navan. The Lake County were leading in that game by 1-9 to 0-4 at half-time but managed just two points in the second half.
One of the main concerns from that defeat is the manner in which Westmeath faded out of contention at midfield in the second half, with Louth’s Conor Earley a dominant figure after the break.
Sam Duncan had a fine first half that day, but struggled after the interval and Westmeath certainly played second fiddle in this key sector as the game progressed. Ray Connellan, a versatile and experienced campaigner at this level, will certainly be expected to play a much more prominent role for Westmeath in Saturday’s tie.
Of course, injury to established centre back Ronan Wallace, who exited after 64 minutes, is a significant blow and Westmeath will have had to work on finding a suitable replacement in the interim. To lose such a pivotal figure places great strain on what are limited resources and Dolan and his backroom team will have had their work cut out to find a suitable replacement.
James Dolan didn’t start against Louth and is now expected to come into the half back line. That gives Westmeath more attacking options out wide. Andy McCormack has been selected to fill the centre back slot in Wallace's absence.
Kieran Martin didn’t feature at all against Louth which is something of a surprise considering his strength and experience: he already had underlined those qualities in the league against Offaly, yet saw no action in Páirc Tailteann.
Armagh will be formidable opponents and marquee forward Rian O’Neill, scorer of six points in the Ulster final, will be one of many players to watch on Kieran McGeeneny’s side. They have obviously gained experience from playing in Division 1 and the likes of Jarlath Óg Burns, Rory Grugan and Aidan Forker (to mention just a few) as well-established names at this stage.
The challenge is for Westmeath to be much more assertive in the second half and it will not be easy against superior opposition at this stage as the county takes its place in the new Sam Maguire Cup format. They will have to contend with a very well organised defensive unit in Armagh, who will get a lot of bodies behind the ball in typical Ulster championship style and scores will be hard earned.
John Heslin and Ronan O’Toole remain key forwards and a lot will be expected of the St Loman’s, Mullingar duo. Senan Baker scored two first half points against the Wee County and the explosive, young Caulry forward is expected to feature once again.
Impact subs will be vital in this All-Ireland series and it remains to be seen if Westmeath, who finished mid-table in division 3, have made enough progress to challenge the likes of Armagh, Galway and Tyrone. Westmeath will surely take great encouragement from the resilience shown by the county's senior hurlers, who came from 17 points down to defeat Wexford last Sunday in the Leinster championship at Wexford Park.
The Westmeath team for tomorrow is: Jason Daly; Jack Smith, Kevin Maguire, Jamie Gonoud; James Dolan, Andy McCormack, David Lynch; Sam Duncan, Ray Connellan; Sam McCartan, Ronan O'Toole, Senan Baker; Luke Loughlin, John Heslin, Stephen Smith.
The Armagh team which lost on penalties against Derry in the Ulster final last Sunday week was: E Rafferty; C O'Neill, A McKay, A Forker; Ciaran Mackin, G McCabe, J Óg Burns; J Morgan, S McPartlan; J Duffy, B McCambridge, R Grugan; A Murnin, R O'Neill, C Turbitt: Subs: S Campbell, A Nugent, R McQuillan, O Conaty, C Cummiskey, Connaire Mackin.
The Westmeath team which played against Louth was: Jason Daly; David Giles, Kevin Maguire, Jack Smith; David Lynch, Ronan Wallace, Jamie Gonoud; Sam Duncan, Jonathan Lynam; Ray Connellan (0-1), Ronan O’Toole (1-1), Senan Baker (0-2); Luke Loughlin (0-3, one ‘45), John Heslin (0-3, two frees), Stephen Smith (0-1). Subs: Conor McCormack for S Smith (51 mins), James Dolan for Gonoud (61 mins), Darragh Seery for Wallace (64 mins), Lorcan Dolan for Duncan (66 mins).