Westmeath 1-19 Kilkenny 5-23
Kilkenny put a sluggish first-half performance behind them to emerge as comfortable winners against a brave Westmeath outfit in TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar on Saturday evening.
Westmeath, operating for the first time in the round-robin system, played with the aid of a slight wind in the first half. They hurled with great spirit and no little skill right from the throw-in and showed scant regard for their opponents' lofty record. Their marquee forward Killian Doyle never missed a free and the home team were full value for their 0-10 to 0-6 lead with 23 minutes on the clock, Niall O'Brien scoring their 10th, with Doyle and Joey Boyle having shared the first nine.
In the 25th minute, Mikey Carey joined the Kilkenny attack and availed of a good advantage call from the referee to rifle an unstoppable shot past championship debutant Conor Bracken, who had made a great save from Pádraig Walsh in the 16th minute.
With Tommy Doyle, Jack Galvin and Daragh Egerton outstanding in defence and regular forward Niall Mitchell back sweeping to great effect, Westmeath refused to throw in the towel and it needed solid free-taking from Alan Murphy and opportunism from play by Pádraig Walsh, who scored three points in the first half, to keep the Cats' noses in front. Kilkenny had only one wide to their opponents' five in the first half and were somewhat fortunate to be ahead by 1-12 to 0-12 at the interval.
Brian Cody introduced TJ Reid for the second half, but they were still just a goal to the good (1-16 to 0-16) with 46 minutes on the clock. However, their superior fitness and know-how began to show as Westmeath visibly tired and Billy Ryan's 54th-minute goal put them ahead by 2-19 to 0-16.
Another Doyle free reduced the deficit, but two minutes after Westmeath were reduced to 14 men with the sending off of Cormac Boyle on a second yellow card. Sub James Maher then pounced for his side's third goal just before the hour mark to end any lingering doubts about the outcome.
It was damage limitation for Joe Fortune's troops at this juncture and despite some fine defending and brave goalkeeping from last year's Joe McDonagh Cup champions, the visitors raised two more green flags late in the contest via Walter Walsh in the 67th minute and Reid in the third minute of added-time, after he had initially gone short from a scoreable free. Sub Owen McCabe scored a consolation goal for Westmeath with time almost up.
Cody was philosophical after the game, stating: “We didn’t come up here to win the game by a massive score to help our score difference, we came up to win the game.
“You saw how competitive it was in the first half, but we eventually got a decent cushion. The subs made an impact and that’s what you’d be hoping for, and we were happy to get some game time into TJ Reid. Fair play to Westmeath, they proved they are well capable of playing at this level.”
His opposite number was pleased with Westmeath’s display, but far from surprised. Fortune said: “For 40-45 minutes we went toe-to-toe with Kilkenny. Some people will be shocked at that, but I’m not as I know what’s in that dressingroom. Moral victories don’t anything for that group, but at some stage we are going to have to take a big team to progress.”
WESTMEATH: C Bracken; D Egerton (0-1), C Shaw, J Galvin; A Craig, T Doyle, K Regan; C Boyle, R Greville; J Boyle (0-2), D McNicholas, D Glennon (0-1); N O'Brien (0-1), N Mitchell, K Doyle (0-14, 11 frees).
Subs: E Keyes for O'Brien (50 mins), C Doyle for McNicholas (55), T Gallagher for Craig (62), O McCabe (1-0) for J Boyle (68), A Cox for Regan (70).
KILKENNY: E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; M Carey (1-0), P Deegan, D Blanchfield; C Kenny (0-1), A Mullen (0-2); W Walsh (1-2), P Walsh (0-4), E Cody (0-1); B Ryan (1-1), M Keoghan, A Murphy (0-7, six frees).
Subs: J Donnelly for Keoghan (34 mins), TJ Reid (1-4, two frees, one 65) for Kenny (h-t), J Maher (1-1) for Murphy (46), C Browne for Blanchfield (59), S Walsh for Ryan (66).
Referee: R McGann (Clare).