Westmeath to march past Carlow and to bigger things

Westmeath soared through Division Two and should set themselves up for a crack at Dublin in Croke Park

One thing guaranteed that every county manager will tell you about the championship is the importance of not looking beyond your first game, although it must be impossible for both these teams not to take a sneaky look beyond the horizon of this.

Because whoever wins here can look forward to a crack at Dublin, the reigning Leinster champions, in a packed-out Croke Park on the June Bank Holiday weekend – and win or lose there, that’s the sort game every player and manager dreams about, isn’t it?

It’s almost equally guaranteed that the team finding that harder to resist is Westmeath, given their unavoidable favourites tag, and deservedly so. While they soared through Division Two to earn themselves promotion to top flight football for 2014, pessimism reigned in Carlow, who started brightly against both Tipperary and London, before losing all five remaining games, and ended up second from bottom of Division Four.

On that basis alone this is a team rising up into Division One against a team that might well have dropped out of Division Four, if that was the case. Of course it’s against that very backdrop that springs the classic championship upset, the only problem with that scenario being that Westmeath appear suitably focused on this game.


Indeed centre back Paul Sharry– one of the many young and confident talents fast maturing under manager Pat Flanagan – spoke this week of the timely reminder that came with the Division Two final against Derry. Westmeath were already sure of promotion anyway, although any danger of getting carried away with themselves died with the defeat that came in Croke Park that day, even if it came off Derry hitting 1-3 in injury time.

Better lose that, Sharry surmised, that lose the first round of the championship, and there is nothing to suggest Westmeath won’t take that lesson to heart. It’s not like they played badly in that final, either, as midfielder John Heslin hit five beautiful frees to remind everyone of his superb talents, while Ger Egan and Callum McCormack also proved highly capable additions to the forward line that too often in the past was reliant on Denis Glennon.

Dessie Dolan also came off the bench that day, hitting three points from play, and now back to full fitness, gets his starting place. Captain Kieran Gavin also returns to his full back position following a lay-off due to a work accident, and that’s the sort of strength and depth that Carlow will almost certainly struggle to contain.

That's not saying Carlow don't have a chance. Manager Anthony Rainbow will have targeted this game all season, and despite their collapse during the league, they actually put up a decent show against Dublin back in the O'Byrne Cup, and he'll certainly have their engines firing. Full back Shane Mernagh is the sole championship newcomer, and inevitably their chances will hinge on how much ball Brendan Murphy can win around centre forward.

But with home advantage also on their side, and confidence still oozing after their highly convincing league campaign, Westmeath may well be over the horizon before Carlow even get to see it.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics