Westmeath look to the next generation to fulfil thwarted ambitions

County working hard to make the step up from whipping boy to Leinster contenders

It is oftentimes forgotten the Gaelic Athletics Association was founded in 1884 on the twin ambitions of reorganising athletics and reviving hurling as the national game. Whatever was made of Gaelic football after that was considered secondary.

Despite the best will and effort of leading field athletes such as Maurice Davin and Michael Cusack, that first ambition soon failed. In 1885 a rival body, the Irish Amateur Athletic Association (IAAA) was established, less biased towards the "pure athletics" of Davin and Cusack, catering for mostly urban athletics areas.

The GAA's influence on athletics was wilting, and a new athletics council was established at the 1913 GAA Congress with the intention of refocusing some attention to the sport. It didn't succeed; by 1922, both the athletics council of the GAA and the IAAA disbanded, paving the way for the establishment of the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI), and the rest is Irish athletics history.

As for reviving hurling as the national game, 138 years later there have only ever been 13 different winners of an All-Ireland hurling title. Of those, three have won only once, including London (1901), along with Kerry (1881) and Laois (1915). Of the other 10 winners, Dublin haven't won since 1938, Waterford since 1959, and only six counties – Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Galway and Clare – have won since the year 2000.

As the 2022 hurling championships progress through the provincial round-robin stages, there is nothing to suggest that will change anytime soon – that second ambition of Davin and Cusack an equal failure perhaps.

Competitive

The Munster championship consists of five counties and is unquestionably competitive; the Leinster championship now consists of six counties, including Galway, given there is no one else as competitive in Connacht. After winning the second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup in 2021, Westmeath were added to the Leinster championship for the first time since 2017, hopeful perhaps of making some sort of impact this time round.

In their opening game against Kilkenny, Westmeath lost by 16 points, 5-23 to 1-19; last Saturday against Galway, they lost by 25 points, 3-36 to 1-17. As one astute statistician noticed, after exactly 26 minutes of that game in Salthill Westmeath had already conceded 26 points.

This Sunday they host Dublin at Cusack Park, Dublin already beating Wexford and Laois, Westmeath already the whipping boys it appears.

Before the championship started, Westmeath were 5,000/1 to win the All-Ireland, and 500/1 to win the Leinster title, which they’ve never actually won, contesting only one final in 1937, losing to Kilkenny.

Westmeath manager Joe Fortune, in his first season in charge, was suitably stoic after the Galway defeat, suggesting there will be good days and bad days. Westmeath enjoyed a good day earlier this month, emphatically winning the division 2 title of the Allianz Hurling League. Still, it highlights the enduring question of what is required not just to make Westmeath competitive again on a provincial stage, but many of the other countries trying their best to make the step up.

Well qualified

The question was put to Alan Kerins, the former Galway dual player who featured in both All-Ireland finals in 2001, well qualified on this front: Kerins served for two years as performance coach under previous Westmeath manager Shane O'Brien, from the Cuala club in Dublin, who stepped down last August after leading Westmeath to the Joe McDonagh Cup.

“When I was involved with Shane, an excellent manager, there really was some exceptional talent there,” said Kerins. “Pulling from a small pool of clubs as well, and a small pocket of the county. With football there as well being perceived as the stronger sport.

"I thought they put up a really good fight against Kilkenny, for a lot of it, were very close at half-time. And they have some exceptional players, Aonghus Clarke, Killian Doyle, Niall Mitchell, Cormac Boyle, there are loads of players in Westmeath that would hold their own with anyone."

For Kerins, an ambassador for minor championship sponsors Electric Ireland, there no quick or easy solution. “I think it’s a long-term play, where there needs to be significant investment in underage structures. There is a consistent talent pool coming, but when you’re in that limbo land, I suppose the volume of players isn’t there, and the same investment in time isn’t being put in there. They’ve a wonderful tradition, but it takes some investment then to be able to play in the higher leagues for longer.

“Like they say in golf, you learn from playing with the best, so it will take a long-term strategic play, from Westmeath, then the GAA as a whole. Investing in underage schools in particular, can we get more hurling in the primary schools in Westmeath, because once kids get a grasp of hurling at a young age they really love it. A real focus needs to go on primary schools and underage structures in these counties, to get more hurling at that level first.

“I don’t think you’re going to see any improvement until you’ve a really solid foundation at that level, grassroots and schools, then over a sustained period of time it emerges. A bit like what Cuala did, at club level, how we get that at county level is what needs to be looked at.”

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