Buoyed up by an excellent start to the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship qualifier group Westmeath face a crucial contest at Cusack Park, Mullingar, this Sunday against Antrim.
Michael Ryan’s team delivered a dynamic display to defeat Carlow by 2-19 to 2-17 as Brendan Murtagh and Alan Devine netted vital goals.
Having put two points into their account Westmeath are keen to be similarly enterprising when Antrim visit the Midlands. The Saffrons stunned Laois with a flurry of majors at Ballycastle so it promises to be an interesting and important encounter.
Ryan was thrilled by the manner in which Westmeath hurled when defeating a physically imposing Carlow outfit. “A couple of things delighted me about the game,” Ryan said. “First of all to win the game. It is very important in the first round of the round robin. Secondly I thought we played fantastic hurling; we played really, really, well. We have worked hard on our defence trying not to concede goals. I know we conceded two, but I thought we were a lot more solid around our square.
“On those aspects of our game we were happy. In the second half the way the lads worked the ball into position in the rain was impressive because it was difficult out there.
“Conditions weren’t great, but we got some fantastic scores, we played really well to set us up for next week against Antrim.”
Despite dominating the opening period Westmeath still departed at the break on level terms, but Ryan was not overly concerned. “I wasn’t worried at half-time because I felt we had a lot of guys playing well,” was Ryan’s verdict. “We noted that Carlow had a tendency to put the ball in the air, so in the second half we worked very hard not to allow them to get those long ranging deliveries into the edge of our square.
“We worked hard closing down around the pitch. I was concerned, but I felt our fitness and attitude were good. We were hurling well and we seemed to be conserving energy all over the pitch which is important when your mettle is going to be tested.”
Former Waterford boss Ryan was encouraged by how Westmeath stayed cool under pressure after the restart.
“In fairness to Carlow every aspect of our defence was tested in the second half. When the challenge was in front of us we came up with the right answers and made some great decisions on the ball.
“We got the ball to the best man in position; Niall O’Brien got three or four points, Alan Devine too. We did that all day long. We were endeavouring to work the ball to the right man, and we had a lot of success in that.
“You can huff and puff, but when it comes to a bit of class Niall O’Brien got four chances and slotted every single one of them which were instrumental in this victory. Likewise [Derek] McNicholas came alive in the second half. We were struggling to win ball in our half forward line, but he did and drove forward too. It wasn’t just those two, right through the team we had some fantastic performances.
“Alan Devine is an unsung hero around here, he did great work and popped up with a few great scores too. We were happy with him. We know there is loads of room for improvement.”
With Antrim next on the agenda Ryan is expecting an equally demanding assignment. “Laois were the favourites to win this group and they could still win this group. Laois were away on a training camp in Spain for a week. They trained very hard and prepared very well, but when cross the border you’re talking about people who love their hurling. You look back at club teams like Loughgiel - there is a lot of good hurlers up there. I know Laois will be disappointed to lose to a last minute goal so Antrim will have a spring in their step coming down here.
“It should also be noted they were in an u21 All Ireland final a couple of years ago so they have lots of good hurlers. We will have to be at our best to win the match.”
Antrim’s five goal haul in the Laois success is noteworthy too according to Ryan. “It obviously shows they’ve potential and they’ve an eye for goal. If you concede five goals 99 times out of a 100 you will lose the match. We will work on it. Overall for us there has been a lot of positives. All of the players have been fantastic. They’ve been asked to do an awful lot of preparation work and they have been exemplary. They are training like a Division One team. They got the result and benefit of it.”
Ryan is completely aware of how significant the tussle with Antrim is. “We know if we win next Sunday there is a fair chance that we will win the group. We will be hurling for the summer then. Championship games bring on teams. The more Championship games in the heat of battle, they more the team will improve. There is a lot of potential in this group of lads.”