Following a defeat in last weekend's Allianz NFL Division One opener with Cork the stakes will be piled high for Westmeath at Cusack Park when All Ireland champions Dublin visit Cusack Park.
It is the second time in just over a month that Jim Gavin's standard bearers travel to Mullingar as Dublin have already beaten Westmeath in the O'Byrne Cup. There will be a more imposing cut to the Dublin starting XV on this occasion and Westmeath manager Paul Bealin is expecting another tough encounter.
“Our guys knew before a ball was thrown in that every game in Division One would be a difficult game,” is Bealin's assessment of the challenges facing Westmeath this Spring. “Cork was going to be a hard game. If we perform and improve our performances in every game we can measure where we are at the end of the League.
“Bringing the All Ireland Champions into Cusack Park I’m sure our lads will relish that. I’m sure the Dubs will travel in big numbers too. We have played them in the O’Byrne Cup, albeit their second string team. We competed and we got beaten by a point at the very end. Our lads will rally again.”
Westmeath will have to summon a defiant display because there were signs of Dublin's considerable ability when they eked out a victory against Kerry at Croke Park last Saturday evening. Bealin is stressing the importance of Dublin's depth and reckons that is one of the main reasons why they are so highly regarded at present.
“It was typical Dublin and Kerry, a very tight game. Dublin got the first goal, Kerry then did very well for 20 or 25 minutes, but Dublin stayed with them and dug out a result. Dublin know how to win games. To be able to bring on Michael Darragh McAuley, Paul Mannion, and Jack McCaffrey is fantastic for any team. They have strength in depth. It was a tight game, it was a great game to watch. We are looking forward to playing Dublin, they have set the benchmark for everyone. Any team playing them will relish the challenge.”
Westmeath were bright initially down by the banks of the Lee before Cork took charge after the restart. That is where the damage was done according to Bealin. “It went wrong in the the third quarter. It looked like the breeze would favour us in the second half, but in the midfield sector Cork took complete control in that area. They ran at us and got a lot of scores from that. It just goes to show how strong Cork are and we struggled with them in the midfield area. They dominated there in the third quarter getting seven or eight points and it meant we had to go chasing the game after that.”
Bealin was satisfied with how Westmeath's approach had bothered Cork at the outset. The teams departed deadlocked at 0-5 each, but Cork had sufficient craft to overpower Westmeath when it mattered most. “We would have taken the position we were in at half-time before the match,” Bealin reflected.
“It was one of the things we said that to give ourselves a chance we’d have been happy level. They got a point just before half-time to level it. We went from four points down to go five-four up. In saying that we were playing against a class team. They have dominated winning four or five Leagues between Division Two and Division One. They have strength in depth and they were physically stronger than we were.
“To give ourselves a chance we set up the way we did. The likes of Cork and Kerry and Dublin like space inside in their forward lines. What you are trying to do is not to put 12 or 13 guys behind the ball, but to try to sweep if you can. We tried a tactic and it worked in the first half, but once we went seven or eight points behind that tactic is gone because you have to push on. We brought lads off the bench to try to push lads on to give us a chance.”
Avoiding an instant relegation to Division Two remains Westmeath's National Football League objective. Bealin is happy that Westmeath's journey has begun and six more demanding fixtures are imminent. “I think there are four or five very good teams in Division Team,” Bealin said. “The three other teams then are competing for the last few spots so as to not get relegated. There is a difference compared to Division Two. Teams like Cork, Kerry, Mayo, and Dublin are consistently in Division One. It certainly helps them and this is a benchmark for us and we know what level these teams are at now.”