Having impressed in the Leinster SHC Round Robin, Westmeath will be hoping to deliver another gutsy display when hosting Galway in a provincial quarter-final at Cusack Park on Sunday.
Galway, all-Ireland finalists in 2015, are expecting a tricky test in the Midlands against Michael Ryan’s rapidly improving team. It has been a hugely satisfying campaign so far for Westmeath, who also claimed a stirring Leinster U-21 Championship win over Kilkenny last week. That capped a remarkable performance, so the upcoming encounter with Galway promises to be an interesting one.
Micheal Donoghue succeeded Anthony Cunningham as Galway manager in December, and despite suffering relegation from Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League the Tribes’ boss feels plenty of lessons have been learned: “It’s been a good four months,” Donoghue reflected at the launch of the Leinster Championships. “I think we’re kind of chasing the pack in terms of when we were appointed, but even for the duration of the league we’ve always said the lads’ application and attitude has been brilliant and hopefully that can continue on for championship.
“Some guys have perceptions of how this was done or that was done. When someone new comes in you’re always going to try and put your own stamp on it, so obviously that’s going to incorporate change. Anything that we’ve done has been well reciprocated by the lads and we’re just trying to push on now for the championship.”
In the league, Galway earned four points from their five group matches, but subsequently were beaten by Cork, who had suffered five defeats. Donoghue didn’t complain about the structure.
“Look, at the outset you knew what was going to happen if you were down there, but from our perspective you still had six games which was good,” Donghue said. “Ideally, you didn’t want to be relegated but as we said to the boys it wasn’t going to define our year. Anyone that has been in the same situation over the last couple of years has pushed on and done well for Championship and we’re looking to follow suit with that.
“I think every year is different and I think the boys are well focused on the job at hand and everything is focused now on June 5.”
One of Galway’s stars, Johnny Glynn, is currently in New York which is a blow according to Donoghue. “Not alone for ability on the field, Johnny was a huge presence in the dressing room so look he’s going to be missed on both counts, but we did our very best to try and get him to come back and it was his wish to stay. We wish him the best and hopefully he’ll be back soon.”
Donoghue is not overly concerned about the high level of expectation in the west: “I don’t pay much heed to it,” he said. “In fairness, since we last won the All-Ireland I think there’s huge expectation on Galway to be successful and there’s a lot of media generated to coincide with that, but it is what it is.
“We acknowledge we have a team capable of being successful and it’s our job now to try to bring them to give them a more consistent performance and that’s what you’re striving to do.”
Being consistent is what Donoghue wants to achieve. “The key is that we get more consistent performances, and with Galway they’ve shown that they can be a match for anyone. So, as I said, we’re just working really hard with the lads to become more consistent and, you know, even though we were relegated there were periods of the league where in different facets and periods of games we were happy coming away from it so it’s just to build on that for Championship.
“We’re only a few months into it, the lads are still getting to know us and still getting to know the way we want to play, so it’s going to take a bit of time, but the sooner the better hopefully.”
Galway forward Conor Whelan is adamant that Westmeath have the potential to make further progress in the coming weeks and months. When asked about Westmeath giving Galway a few scares in the recent past Whelan said: “They have and from what I know they ran us very close in 2012.
“We are not taking our eye off the ball for a second. We know Michael Ryan is doing a very good job and we’re basically preparing for a dog-fight up there. I think that’s something we’ll be well aware of, that they pose a serious threat up in Mullingar in their own back garden.”
Ryan guided Westmeath to the Allianz Hurling League Division 2A title, and while the Midlanders lost a promotion/relegation play-off with Laois, the response in the round robin was excellent. A first Championship triumph over Offaly in 40 years was followed by victories against Kerry and Carlow. Those positive results demonstrated just how far Westmeath have travelled, but the Galway match will be revealing.