Under 21 hurlers flatter to deceive

March 31, 2003
Big things were expected of the Westmeath under 21 hurling team in 2002, but it all went horribly wrong against Carlow in the Leinster 'Special' final at Portlaoise last June. A bitter pill to swallow. That's how one could best describe Westmeath's shock defeat to Carlow in the Leinster under 21 hurling championship at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise on June 2 last. To say that Westmeath had high hopes of making an impact on the Leinster championship would not be an exaggeration. After all, this was the team that had come within a whisker of beating Kilkenny in the Leinster minor championship semi-final of 1999, having accounted for Offaly and Dublin in the round-robin series. Several members of the team had also garnered All-Ireland under 21 'B' medals in 2000, adding to the expectations. An impressive opening round victory over Meath suggested that Westmeath could go a long way, but it all went horribly wrong against an unheralded Carlow team who clearly hadn't read the script on the first Sunday in June. The defeat was a huge blow not just to the management who had been involved with this particular squad for six years, but to Westmeath hurling in general. It is difficult to phatom what went wrong against the Barrowsiders. Could the team have found the weight of expectation too great, or was it a case of over-confidence getting the better of them? For whatever reason, Westmeath failed abysmally to do themselves justice and it remains to be seen if the scars of the defeat will stay with the players, many of whom have already embarked on their senior careers. Under the guidance of Peter Curran, the team prepared diligently for a campaign which promised much, but delivered little. With six of the side - Brian Conaty, Brendan Murtagh, Vincent Bateman, John Shaw, Daniel Carty and Ronan Whelan - which later lined out against Dublin in the senior championship on board, Westmeath travelled to Trim on April 24 for an opening round (Leinster 'Special' semi-final) showdown with Meath in a confident frame of mind. Favoured by a stiff breeze in the first half, the visitors were quickly into their stride thanks to an early goal from John Shaw. Colin Whyte followed up with a point before Castlepollard's Kevin Brazil - who had been an early replacement for Kevin Baker - crashed home a second goal to putting Westmeath firmly in the driving seat. Before the first quarter had elapsed, Brazil had bagged his second goal to give Westmeath a 3-3 to 0-2 lead. Westmeath continued their first half onslaught and, before long, it yielded a fourth goal from Shaw. Joey O'Toole replied with a pointed free for the Royals, but another minor from Brownstown's Johnny McGuinness ensured the maroon and whites of a 4-4 to 0-3 advantage at the break. The sides were more evenly matched in the second half with two points from John Watters on the restart providing Meath with a glimmer of hope. But with Brian Conaty, Brendan Murtagh, Maurice Gavigan and Greg Gavin not giving an inch at the back, a Royal comeback never looked to be on the cards. Meath continued to plug away, but scores from Daniel Carty and substitute Mark McNicholas copperfastened a fine 4-8 to 0-9 win for the visitors who, incidentally, lost star forward John Shaw through injury at half-time. The meeting with Carlow in the 'Special' final provided the curtain-raiser for the big Leinster football tie between Westmeath and Meath at the magnificent new O'Moore Park. Many football fans came along early to lend their support to the hurlers, but it counted for little as the Barrowsiders snatched an unexpected victory. John McGuinness pointed Westmeath into an early lead before two frees from Brendan Lawler edged Carlow in front. After wasting a number of chances, Westmeath regained the lead when Colin Whyte swooped for the opening goal in the 11th minute. Carlow recovered well with the accurate freetaking of Lawler giving them the lead once again. However, Greg Gavin ensured Westmeath of parity at the interval, 1-3 to 0-6, when he slotted over a '65'. Westmeath began the second half as if they were about to demolish their south Leinster opponents. A great sideline delivery by Enda Loughlin was latched onto by John Shaw who duly blasted to the net with the goalkeeper well beaten. Lawler replied with a point for Carlow, but two further minors from Brendan Murtagh and John McGuinness had Westmeath perched nicely on a 2-5 to 0-7 lead at the end of the third quarter. John Coady (Carlow) and Vincent Bateman then exchanged points before points from Lawler and substitute Karl English reduced the deficit to two. As Westmeath continued to be afflicted by poor finishing - especially from placed balls - Carlow hauled themselves back onto level terms courtesy of scores from Lawler and Coady. McGuinness replied for Westmeath, only to have his effort cancelled out by Lawler who hit nine frees in all. With the game in injury-time, Greg Gavin looked to have spared Westmeath's blushes when he sent over a superb point from 80 metres out the field. Still Carlow battled on, and with maroon-clad fans shooting for full-time, a long delivery upfield by Seamus Smithers went over the heads of the Westmeath backs and fell kindly into the path of Mark Brennan who whipped a low shot past Brian Conaty for the winning goal. On a scoreline of 2-8 to 1-13, Westmeath's dream was over. Interestingly, it was the second year on the trot that Carlow ended Westmeath's championship interests. In 2001, the Barrowsiders emerged victorious by 1-13 to 0-12 after extra-time at the same stage of the championship. The Westmeath team which lost to Carlow in the Leinster under 21 'Special' hurling championship final was: Brian Conaty; Maurice Gavigan, Brendan Murtagh, Shane Murtagh; Paddy Dowdall, Vincent Bateman, Maurice Quinn; Enda Loughlin, Greg Gavin; John Shaw, John McGuinness, Ronan Whelan; Daniel Carty, Colin Whyte, Kevin Brazil. Subs used: Kevin Baker, Gerard Fagan and Shane Owens.

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