By Daire Walsh
Westmeath came good in the closing moments to record a four-point victory over neighbours Meath in the group stages of the Joe McDonagh Cup at Pairc Tailteann.
While the Lake County were already effectively out of contention for a spot in the tournament decider, this comes as a significant morale-boost. Given the close proximity of the two counties, Westmeath manager Shane O’Brien (who has previous inter-county experience as Dublin camogie boss) will have been delighted to see his side recovering from a losing position in the closing-quarter.
Castletown Geoghegan’s Aonghus Clarke was terrific throughout and finished with a handsome tally of 0-9 for the visitors. Joey Boyle was another to impress, while Niall Mitchell also stood out in a difficult opening period for Westmeath.
The Royals were in line for a much-desired win when they led 1-12 to 1-8 at the midway stage in the contest. Padraic O’Hanrahan’s dead-ball accuracy helped them to create a powerful platform and Jack Walsh was operating as a dangerous target man on the edge of the square.
Despite losing Jack Regan to a red card on 54 minutes, Meath remained two in front (1-18 to 1-16) with just three minutes of normal time left to play. Yet, Westmeath hung in there and ultimately did enough to claim the two points on offer.
Both sides entered this contest on the back of disappointing form in this competition to date. Westmeath suffered comprehensive defeats to Antrim (4-25 to 1-15) and Kerry (2-19 to 0-14) in the opening two rounds, and were hoping a three-week break would give them the chance to regroup and return as a rejuvenated force.
Formerly a dual star, Brendan Murtagh contributed a combined tally of 0-10 across their two previous games but was held in reserve for the majority of this tie. Additionally, Niall O’Brien – one of the shining lights in the Antrim game with a 1-2 haul – was forced to sit out this game having received a red card against Kerry.
Meath finished 10 points adrift of The Kingdom (1-20 to 0-13) in their first game of the group stages on October 25 at Austin Stack Park, Tralee, before agonisingly lost out to Carlow by a single point (1-22 to 1-21) 13 days later.
O’Hanrahan (0-12) and Regan (0-10) had been their leading lights in the scoring charts in advance of this tie, which saw the Royals playing on home soil for the first time since March 1 – a narrow success at the expense of Mayo in Division 2A of the National Hurling League.
Following a relatively even start, Meath stretched 0-5 to 0-2 clear when Walsh slotted over a point. This was immediately wiped out by Shane Williams’ 12th minute goal and Westmeath supplemented the Lough Lene Gaels man’s intervention with two quickfire white flag efforts.
This was only a minor set-back for Meath – who are managed by Westmeath native Nick Weir – and by the time the first water break arrived, they held a 0-8 to 1-4 advantage.
Keith Keoghan, Alan Douglas and Regan knocked over consecutive points to offer Meath some leeway on the scoreboard. Rather than being affected by the temporary halt in play, the Royals were even more impressive after the restart.
O’Hanrahan and Regan bagged points in advance of a Joey Boyle single for Westmeath, before the ever-threatening Walsh flicked to the net in the 27th-minute.
To Westmeath’s credit, they got themselves back in the frame with Cormac Boyle and Clarke points. Mitchell also added his name to the scoresheet, though Regan and Stephen Morris did likewise at the opposite end to establish a four-point cushion for Meath heading into the changing rooms at half-time.
After O’Hanrahan had increased their lead on the resumption, Westmeath responded with two points in succession from Clarke and Mitchell. The home team found it difficult to create the same level of momentum in the second half, but thanks to a brace by the dependable O’Hanrahan, their interval buffer remained intact on 48 minutes.
Westmeath held in there, however, and enjoyed a sustained purple patch towards the end of the third-quarter. Four points on the bounce – including key contributions courtesy of Clarke and Joey Boyle – suddenly ensured the sides were on level terms (1-15 to 1-15).
Westmeath appeared to have the upper hand when Meath’s Regan was given his march orders for an off-the-ball incident. The second water break afforded the Royals an opportunity to re-examine their approach, though, and with considerable fire in their bellies, they subsequently regained the ascendancy.
The influential duo of Walsh and O’Hanrahan (free) handed them some breathing space and while Westmeath’s Cormac Boyle fired back at the end of a sweeping move, O’Hanrahan found the range off a close-range free.
Even though a similar strike by Clarke kept them on their toes, Meath were still ahead moving into the stoppage-time. However, this was the cue for Westmeath to flex their muscle.
Joey Boyle popped up for an equalising score and this was swiftly followed by a scrambled finish from Luke Loughlin – who had deputised for Jack Galvin in the opening half and recently featured for the Westmeath footballers in their Leinster SFC defeat to All-Ireland champions Dublin.
Meath fought until the end, but it was left for the outstanding Clarke to have the final say. His two-point salvo deep into time added on eventually put the seal on a hard-earned win for Westmeath.
Scorers – Westmeath: Aonghus Clarke 0-9 (7f), Shane Williams, Luke Loughlin 1-0 each, Cormac Boyle, Joey Boyle 0-3 each, Niall Mitchell 0-2, Alan Cox, Robbie Greville, Darragh Clinton 0-1 each. Meath: Padraic O’Hanrahan 0-8 (8f), Jack Walsh 1-2, Jack Regan (2f), Adam Gannon 0-3 each, Keith Keoghan, Stephen Morris, Alan Douglas 0-1 each.
WESTMEATH: Eoin Skelly; Conor Shaw, Brendan Doyle, Darragh Egerton; Aaron Craig, Tommy Doyle, Alan Cox; Cormac Boyle, Robbie Greville; Aonghus Clarke, Joey Boyle, Jack Galvin; Shane Williams, Niall Mitchell, Darragh Clinton. Subs: Luke Loughlin for Galvin (26), Derek McNicholas for Clinton (51), Brendan Murtagh for Williams (63), Eoghan Ahearn for Mitchell (68), Conor Kane for B Doyle (75).
MEATH: Mark McCormack; Michael Burke, Shane Brennan, Sean Geraghty; Keith Keoghan, Darragh Kelly, Shane Whitty; Padraic O’Hanrahan, Patrick Conneely; Jack Regan, Stephen Morris, Alan Douglas; Adam Gannon, Cathal McCabe, Jack Walsh. Subs: James Kelly for McCabe (half-time), Daithi McGowan for Gannon (45), Damien Healy for Douglas, Mark Molloy for Conneely (both 59), Charlie Ennis for McCormack (62).
Referee: Rory McGann (Clare).