By John Harrington
Westmeath’s destruction of Offaly in last Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup Round 2 clash made it 10 competitive wins in a row far this year for the Lake County hurlers.
They’ve already won the Kehoe Cup and Division 2A of the Allianz Hurling League, and the manner in which they put Offaly to the sword suggests they’re very viable contenders to also lift the McDonagh Cup.
Joe Quaid is off to a very impressive start as team manager since taking charge of the team at the start of the season, and full-back Tommy Doyle says all of the players have responded positively to his forensic approach to the job.
“Since Joe Quaid and his backroom team have come in they’ve just brought a real professional approach,” Doyle told GAA.ie.
“Joe is a very organised man and he’s very good at managing the overall thing. He had a good coaching team with him and he brings people in who are bringing some great ideas to the camp.
“He’s given lads a chance to fight for their place and it’s good for lads coming in off the bench that they’re being given plenty of chances.”
Quaid could well prove to the be the right man in the right place at the right time as far as Westmeath hurling is concerned.
He’s inherited a panel of players who are now coming into their prime after being given a very solid grounding in the game by Quaid’s predecessor Michael Ryan.
The inconsistency you often get with youth has been an issue for the last couple of years for Westmeath, but now there’s a more mature look to a group of players who should be at their peak for the next couple of seasons.
“I’d say the average age of the panel is 25 or 26,” said Doyle. “It’s a right blend and lads are coming into their prime. It’s a great time to be going into Division 1 hurling next year when we have lads who have built up experience throughout the last few years.
“We have a nice blend of lads who have just come in from the U-21s and then we have a few older heads that have been there since winning the last few Christy Rings when we were competing in that competition.
“It’s a good blend together and we’re looking forward to testing ourselves against the top teams next year.
“But, for now, this Joe McDonagh Cup is all we’re focused on and there’s serious competition in it. One team will go up but one team has to go down too and when you look around you’d say it’s going to be very competitive at both ends.”
Doyle doesn’t mind admitting that he and his team-mates have looked on enviously as Carlow got the opportunity to test themselves against the elite counties in Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League this year, and, now, in the Leinster Championship.
It was Carlow who denied Westmeath those opportunities by beating them in the Allianz Hurling League Division 2A and McDonagh Cup Finals last year.
And the manner in which they survived in Division 1B this year and have competed in the Leinster Championship has been a source of encouragement for everyone in the Westmeath panel.
“That’s it,” said Doyle. “We kind of look at Carlow this and what they’ve done so far and what they’re getting to go in and play against in the Championship now and it’s what you want when you start playing with Westmeath – you want to test yourself against the best.
“Look, sometimes it mightn’t happen for you. Other teams could be looking at Carlow saying they’ve daunting weekends ahead but I guarantee you the players in the dressing-room can’t wait for every Leinster Championship match.
“That’s how you learn – from being dropped in the deep end and seeing where you are. If you could beat one of them it would be huge for Carlow and all of these teams in the McDonagh Cup who are watching them from a distance.
“Ourselves and Carlow would have had a similar pathway from underage up at my age-group anyway and it’s coming through to the senior level now.
“We’d take a lot of encouragement from what Carlow have done this year so far. When they got a draw against Galway in the League it was nation-wide news and it gives the teams in the Joe McDonagh and the Christy Ring and below that the belief that anything is possible.”
What Carlow have achieved is all the more laudable considering there’s just four senior hurling clubs in the county.
Westmeath, in contrast, have ten, and their club championship is a very competitive one, so they’re definitely building on very solid foundations.
I think Westmeath hurling is in a very healthy place,” said Doyle.
“You can see from what Clonkill have done. They won an All-Ireland Intermediate in 2008 and ran Ballyboden very close last year in the Leinster Senior Championship, ran them to extra-time, and Ballyboden went on to make a Leinster Final.
“We have great clubs in Westmeath and we’ve always put it up to clubs from counties around us. The Club scene is very competitive, there are always five or six teams in the hat who would believe they could win a county title in any given year.
“My own club Lough Lene Gaels would have drawn with Clonkill in the first round of the Championship last year and over the years a lot of clubs have all beaten one another, but when it comes to the knock-out stages the experience of teams like Clonkill, Ratharney, and Castletown-Geoghehan gets them over the line.
“We’re all trying to emulate them, though, and the standard of club hurling is rising all the time in the county.”
The standard of the Westmeath county team is quickly rising in tandem, which will be appreciated by a wider audience when two of their upcoming McDonagh Cup matches are streamed live on GAA.ie.
A number of other McDonagh Cup matches will also be live-streamed in the coming weeks, and Doyle believes the added exposure is a major boost for second-tier hurling.
“It is, definitely,” he said. “In my opinion, everyone has already seen the likes of Seamus Callanan, Cian Lynch, and Aaron Gillane on telly loads of times.
“But I’d encourage supporters to go watch the likes of Neil McManus from Antrim, Eoin Price from Westmeath, Paddy Purcell and Cha Dwyer of Laois because they’re all top-quality hurlers.
“Neutrals probably don’t get the chance to see them and appreciate them on telly, so hopefully the streaming will expose these lads to the public eye more and show that they’re just as good as some of the lads who are on the telly week in, week out.”