Ten years ago, unheralded Westmeath came perilously close to dumping Kilkenny out of the Leinster minor hurling championship, in the penultimate round, on a dull and wet summer"s evening in Cusack Park.
However, it was very much plain sailing for the visiting side last Wednesday at the same stage of the championship at the same venue, which on this occasion was sun-drenched.
In front of some 1,500 spectators, the Cats upped their performance a gear in the second moiety and advanced by a whopping 19 points to a provincial showdown with Wexford next Sunday. While the home side fared quite well in the opening half an hour and trailed by just a goal at the break, Kilkenny"s far greater craft shone through on the change of ends. A soft goal from Sean Kehoe, less than nine minutes after the resumption of play, effectively brought an end to Westmeath"s gallant challenge. The floodgates opened at this juncture and a succession of Kilkenny players scored from all angles in what was virtually target practice for the lads in black and amber.
After a very noteworthy win over Offaly in the quarter-final, throngs of Westmeath fans turned up in Cusack Park, dreaming of their heroes securing a first-ever place in a Leinster minor hurling decider. They almost got an ideal opening tonic with Patrick Laide"s close-range poked effort for a goal after a mere 20 seconds being deflected by John Power out for a "65".
Impressive freetaker Barry O"Meara duly pointed the placed ball but, as it transpired, this was the only time that Westmeath actually led. The Cats were level within a minute, courtesy of a long-range free from Richie Doyle and tall full forward, Walter Walsh soon put them in front with a fine point.
Disaster befell the lads in maroon and white in the fifth minute. Cathal Scally, who had excelled between the posts in earlier rounds, collided with one of his defenders as he attempted to catch a high ball and alert corner forward, Ger Aylward tapped the sliotar to an unguarded net, with Scally having to retire injured. Westmeath were clearly rattled by this early setback and they played second fiddle to their opponents for the ensuing ten minutes, another huge free from Richie Doyle and a neat score by Geoff Brennan, after a patient build-up, opening a six-points lead for the winners.
The home side then played their best hurling of the contest but were unable to score from play, relying on Barry O"Meara"s accuracy from placed balls.
The Crookedwood teenager rifled over four points in a seven-minute period (a "65", two close-range frees and a great strike from 70 metres) to reduce the margin to just two points by the 24th minute. However, Kilkenny continued to look very dangerous when they attacked the main scoreboard end of the ground, with Canice Maher and Walter Walsh both coming close to raising a green flag. Seamus Qualter"s charges almost got in for a vital three-pointer in the second minute of injury-time, when Barry O"Meara got a vital touch to a huge free from Stephen Boylan (following what seemed a soft award) but the "goal" was disallowed for a square ball offence. A minute later, Sean Kehoe pointed a 40-metre free for the lads in black and amber. At the break, Kilkenny only led by a goal (1-5 to 0-5), with Westmeath still seemingly poised to make a real fight of the Leinster semi-final.
However, the second half was almost entirely one-way traffic from start to finish. Glen Flynn fielded the sliotar superbly in the opening minute but needed too much time on the ball and Kilkenny just don"t allow indecision with any opponents. Three early Kilkenny points (a Sean Kehoe free from 55 metres and two quickfire scores from play by Ollie Walsh and Walter Walsh) opened a significant gap. Victory for the visitors was then virtually assured when an innocuous long-range shot from Sean Kehoe deceived the hitherto-solid Westmeath sub goalie, Niall Kelly, for a very soft goal. A succession of points ensued from the Cats - Ollie Walsh, Ger Aylward, Sean Kehoe (a superb brace), Walter Walsh and Cathal Kenny being the men on target - which put them 2-14 to 0-5 ahead by the 21st minute of the second half.
Westmeath remained plucky but their only score of the second moiety, and their single score from play over the hour, came with eight minutes of normal time remaining from substitute David Gavin. However, the sizeable home crowd had virtually turned silent by this juncture and the visitors rattled off five more unanswered points before the final whistle.
Substitute James Cassin accounted for the first two of these, the second clearly demonstrating the gulf in class, as no less than three Westmeath lads had failed to perform a routine task. Richie Doyle pointed a "65" in the 28th minute, following an instinctive save from Niall Kelly, and Sean Kehoe completed his fine personal haul of 1-5 with a great score under pressure.
In the final minute of normal time, team captain Alan McGrath, who never threw in the towel, struck a 30-metre free very well in an attempt to score a face-saving goal, but the winners" defence held firm. Last-gasp "blood sub", Paul Holden ended the rout with a straight forward point in the third and last minute of added-time.
Kilkenny: John Power; Willie Phelan, Danny Kenny, Joe Lyng; Padraig Gahan, Richie Doyle (0-3, 0-2 from frees, 0-1 from a "65"), James Gannon; Cillian Buckley, Geoff Brennan (0-1); Cathal Kenny (0-1), Sean Kehoe (1-5, 0-2 from frees), Ollie Walsh (0-2); Canice Maher (capt), Walter Walsh (0-3), Ger Aylward (1-1). Subs: James Cassin (for Aylward, temp, 29 mins), Ian Duggan (for Gahan, 35 mins), Luke Harney (for D.Kenny, 41 mins), James Cassin (0-2) (for Maher, 53 mins), Cathal English (for Aylward, 53 mins), Jason Corcoran (for Gannon, 57 mins), Paul Holden (0-1) (for Doyle, temp, 60 mins).
Westmeath: Cathal Scally; Derek Healy, Adam Shiels, Diarmuid Garvin; Cormac Boyle, Alan McGrath (capt), Jordy Cassidy; Stephen Boylan, Colin O"Brien; Shane Fagan, Glen Flynn, Patrick Laide; Niall Dowdall, Barry O"Meara (0-5, 0-3 from frees, 0-2 from "65"s), Anthony Price. Subs: Niall Kelly (for Scally, inj, 8 mins), David Gavin (0-1) (for O"Brien, half-time), Shane Donaher (for Boylan, inj, 42 mins), Enda Kincaid (for Boyle, 50 mins), Donal Glynn (for Cassidy, 57 mins).
Referee: Martin Bartley (Meath).