Westmeath hurlers eye quarter-final place after Antrim rout

Ulster side no match for midlanders in Leinster championship preliminary group clash

Westmeath 1-21 Antrim 0-7

Westmeath’s hurlers emerged from the driving rain in front of just under 1,300 spectators in Mullingar yesterday afternoon as surprise table-toppers in the Leinster championship preliminary round robin series after recording a 17-point win against an out-of-sorts Antrim.

Neither side had scored with almost five minutes elapsed when Antrim corner back Arron Graffin sustained a serious leg injury, precipitating a stoppage of eight minutes.

When play resumed, Niall O'Brien picked out Robbie Greville from an indirect free and the midfielder put his side into a lead they never remotely looked like relinquishing.

The injury and the enforced delay seemed to rattle Kevin Ryan’s men, who never got into the game.

An impressive Westmeath outfit scored freely from open play and placed balls, with Shane Power and Aonghus Clarke catching the eye consistently in defence, Robbie Greville excelling at midfield, and Derek McNicholas and Niall O'Brien in fine form in attack.

Antrim also had no answer to Brendan Murtagh’s imposing physique at full forward.

Standards McNicholas’s brace of long-range points were outstanding by any standards, while the very skilful O’Brien scored three points – two of them from play – in a 90-second cameo midway through the half.

Antrim's only two scores of the opening half came via a free from the halfway line by Paul Shiels and a tidy finish from play by Eoghan Campbell.

Westmeath's goal arrived in the 34th minute (including the delay for Graffin's injury) when a delightful pass from O'Brien teed up Alan Devine, who gave Chris O'Connell no chance. At the break, Michael Ryan's charges were in a very commanding position, leading by 1-13 to 0-2.

Ciaran Clarke opened the scoring on the change of ends from a free but the home team soon regained the initiative with four points from the sticks of O'Brien (three, including two frees) and a sublime sideline cut by McNicholas.

Over the course of the game, the Ulster men only managed two points from play from their starting team, with substitute Ciaran Johnson also chipping in with two points after being sprung from the bench after the interval.

Replicating The second half was totally devoid of excitement as Antrim never came close to replicating the form they had shown in a one-point win against Laois a week earlier.

For their part, Westmeath showed considerable improvement from their narrow win over Carlow on the same pitch the previous Sunday. Coming after their minors’ shock win in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday, it was a memorable weekend for the small ball game in the Lake County.

Westmeath now travel to Portlaoise on Sunday week in pole position to emerge as winners of the mini-group, with a quarter-final showdown against Offaly the prize for the group winners. Antrim will face Carlow in Netwatch Cullen Park on the same day with the losers of that tie likely to drop down to the Christy Ring Cup for 2016.

WESTMEATH: S McGovern; S Power, T Doyle, G Greville; A Craig, A Clarke, A McGrath; E Price, C Boyle (0-2); N O'Brien (0-8, five frees), D McNicholas (0-3), R Greville (0-4); A Devine (1-3), B Murtagh (0-1), D Clinton. Subs: E Corrigan for Clinton (53 mins), J Clarke for McGrath (54 mins), J Boyle for McNicholas (58 mins), L Varley for G Greville (61 mins), M Daly for Murtagh (64 mins)
ANTRIM: C O'Connell; O McFadden, J Dillon, P Shiels (0-2, one free); S McCrory, C McKinley, A Graffin; M Bradley, N McAuley; R McCambridge, N McManus, E Campbell (0-1); C Clarke (0-2, two frees), Conor Johnson, D McClean. Subs: D McKernan for Graffin (13 mins), C Carson for McClean (23 mins), Ciaran Johnson (0-2) for Campbell (half-time), T McCann for McManus (51 mins), M Donnelly for Clarke (61 mins). Referee: F Horgan (Tipperary)