Westmeath claim the Joe McDonagh Cup
By Daire Walsh
JOE MCDONAGH CUP FINAL
By Daire Walsh
Spurred on by the heartbreak of final losses in 2018 and 2019, Westmeath finally got their hands on the Joe McDonagh Cup at Croke Park on Saturday evening.
Played as a curtain-raiser to the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship final between Dublin and Kilkenny, the Lake County produced an outstanding display in GAA HQ to overcome the challenge of Kerry with eight points to spare. As well as getting their hands on some precious championship silverware, Shane O’Brien’s side will also take an active part in next year’s Leinster SHC rather than simply being interested spectators.
A difficult run of form in National Hurling League Division One had the potential to upset Westmeath in advance of this competition, but gritty group stages win over Carlow and Kildare went some way to allaying these fears. The most impressive thing about their victory was the fact they weren’t reliant on any player in particular for scores.
While Niall Mitchell (1-4) and Killian Doyle (0-6) emerged with excellent tallies, Davy Glennon (0-5), Ciaran Doyle (1-2) and Robbie Greville also turned on the style. Aonghus Clarke, Niall O’Brien and Derek Nicholas also contributed multiple points on a red letter day for Westmeath hurling.
The addition of former Galway hurler Glennon to the ranks has proven to be a shrewd move by O’Brien and his management team. The Mullagh man achieved a unique feat this weekend as he became the first player to earn Liam McCarthy Cup and Joe McDonagh Cup honours - having been part of the Tribesmen’s panel for their All-Ireland senior success of 2017.
For their part, Kerry had just about squeezed into this showpiece decider after losing out to Meath last weekend and struggled to cope with the pace and power of their eastern counterparts. Still, they certainly had their moments with Padraig Boyle (0-7), Mikey Boyle (1-3), Shane Conway (0-4) and Cian Hussey (0-3) all keeping them in the frame throughout.
This is their second successive final reversal following a narrow loss to Antrim in 2020, but they can take solace from the way Westmeath bounce back from a similar frustration to be crowned the Joe McDonagh Cup champions in the current calendar.
Although Kerry got the ball rolling with a Barry O’Mahony point, it was the Lake County who set the foundations during the early exchanges. Before Glennon knocked over his first point, a second-minute Mitchell goal helped Westmeath to create early daylight.
A brace of Conway scores - including a majestic sideline cut - ensured Kerry were still in the mix, before Ciaran Doyle and Killian Doyle opened up their personal accounts. Conway and Daniel Collins were on hand to bring the deficit back down to a bare minimum - in advance of wing-back Clarke and O’Brien contributing white flag efforts of their own.
Either side of Glennon’s second, the Boyle brothers - Padraig and Mikey - also dissected the uprights for the Kingdom. In a fast and open spectacle, Barry O’Mahony and Glennon traded scores as the first water break approached.
Kerry were settling into a familiar rhythm and thanks to back-to-back points from Shane Nolan and Padraig Boyle, the Munster men had restored parity (0-10 to 1-7). This did little to dim the attacking appetite of Westmeath, however, and they fired over unanswered scores through Joey Boyle, Greville and Mitchell.
It is now becoming customary to see defenders adding their names to the scoresheet and Kingdom backs Conor O’Keeffe and Jason Diggins both found the range in the second-quarter. Another Killian Doyle strike was sandwiched in between these points to keep Westmeath in the ascendancy.
Ciaran Doyle and Greville were the next players to split the posts in a pulsating affair, with Padraig Boyle issuing a swift response at the opposite end. Another Conway point looked set to keep things tight at the break, but Westmeath discovered an extra gear prior to the interval and this put them into a commanding position that they never surrendered.
Greville, Mitchell and Glennon points were followed by a Ciaran Doyle goal, propelling the Lake men into a 2-16 to 0-14 interval buffer.
Kerry needed a strong start to the second period if they were to have any hope of turning the game around. Instead, Killian Doyle and Greville moved Westmeath into a double digits advantage.
To the Kingdom’s credit, Hussey and Mikey Boyle proceeded to cancel out these scores in clinical fashion. Yet their opponents continued to play with incredible spirit and focus - and the gap subsequently widened to 11 points on 48 minutes.
Killian Doyle, Mitchell, Glennon and Aaron Craig all fired over points, with the only response from Kerry being another Hussey effort. Padraig Boyle (free), Mikey Boyle and Cian Hussey all boosted their individual hauls ahead of the second half water break, but this only brought Kerry back to where they were at the midway stage.
Still, you could never question the attitude of Fintan O’Connor’s Kerry. After Killian Doyle converted another free, a Padraig Boyle point was trumped by a badly-needed major from his sibling Mikey.
This suddenly left just five between the sides (2-23 to 1-21) and there was a sense that Westmeath needed a score to settle their nerves. They managed two off the sticks of Killian Doyle and Clarke, but even though O’Brien knocked over a free, the deficit was back down to five following points by Padraig Boyle (two) and Nolan.
Still, Westmeath never panicked and the experienced Derek McNicholas made his presence felt off the bench. He was successful off two frees and Mitchell also ensured he marginally usurped Killian Doyle as the game’s top-scorer with a point deep into stoppage-time.
Even though they won the Christy Ring Cup (in its previous guise as the second-tier hurling championship), this is certainly up there as one of the finest hours for Westmeath in the small ball game. They will have a chance to preserve their NHL Division One status in a relegation play-off with Laois next month and another win in that game would complete a memorable 2021 for the Lake County.
Westmeath: Niall Mitchell 1-4, Killian Doyle 0-6 (3f), Davy Glennon 0-5, Ciaran Doyle 1-2, Robbie Greville 0-4, Aonghus Clarke, Niall O'Brien (1f) and Derek McNicholas (2f) 0-2 each, Aaron Craig and Joey Boyle 0-1 each.
Kerry: Padraig Boyle 0-7 (3f), Mikey Boyle 1-3, Shane Conway 0-4 (2f, 1 s/l) Cian Hussey 0-3, Shane Nolan and Barry O'Mahony 0-2 each, Daniel Collins, Conor O'Keeffe, and Jason Diggins 0-1 each.
WESTMEATH: Noel Conaty; Darragh Egerton, Tommy Gallagher, Conor Shaw; Aaron Craig, Tommy Doyle, Aonghus Clarke; Cormac Boyle, Robbie Greville; Davy Glennon, Killian Doyle, Joey Boyle; Ciaran Doyle, Niall O'Brien, Niall Mitchell. Subs: Shane Clavin for C Boyle (48), Josh Coll for C Doyle (55), Derek McNicholas for K Doyle (62), Shane Williams for O'Brien (67), Darragh Clinton for J Boyle (70).
KERRY: John B O'Halloran; Eric Leen, Evan Murphy, Conor O'Keeffe; Jason Diggins, Fionn Mackessy, Tomas O'Connor; Paudie O'Connor, Shane Nolan; Mikey Boyle, Daniel Collins, Barry O'Mahony; Padraig Boyle, Shane Conway, Cian Hussey. Subs: Mikey Leen for P O'Connor (half-time), Brian Murphy for T O'Connor (43), Maurice O'Connor for O'Mahony (54)