Antrim hurlers reach League decider despite Westmeath defeat
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Antrim 1-15 Westmeath 0-20
CUSHENDALL almost had everything yesterday. Beautiful spring sunshine, spectacular scenery, kids with hurls dotted all around the place and a feisty game between Antrim and Westmeath.
The only thing missing was a performance from the home side worthy of its gorgeous surroundings.
The Antrim hurlers never quite clicked into gear and duly suffered their first defeat in Division 2A.
But they'd mined enough League points this season to qualify for next weekend's League final against Carlow.
The fact Antrim were virtually assured of a League final berth before yesterday's tie might've taken the edge off their game.
On the evidence of yesterday's display, however, Westmeath will rue early defeats to Carlow and Kildare that cost them any chance of promotion.
Antrim were somehow level at half-time [1-8 to 0-11], largely thanks to Ciaran Clarke's diagonal run across the front of the Westmeath defence and superb finish to the corner of the net on 28 minutes.
Even though the home side hadn't hit any high notes they still forged ahead by two points three minutes after the restart, but the visitors recovered their composure and once they hit the front again on 48 minutes they never looked like losing a grip of this game.
Three minutes earlier, Antrim's hopes of toppling Westmeath were dealt a hammer blow when corner-back Ciaran Johnston was red-carded for felling corner-forward Darragh Egerton in what seemed like a collision rather than cynical play.
Afterwards, Westmeath manager Michael Ryan warned Antrim if they have designs on playing Division 1B hurling next season a “significant improvement” would be required.
“I'd say next week's decider will be very, very tight,” said Ryan.
“But as I said to the Antrim lads after the match they're well capable of winning that final but they'll have to play better than they played today.
“Maybe their eye was off the ball; they were all but qualified and they got a fella sent off as well.
“Today's performance won't win them the final but I think Antrim will improve significantly. They weren't quite at their best today but I think you'll see a different Antrim team next week.”
Few players wearing saffron yesterday really fired.
The pick of the home side were top-scorer Deaglan Murphy, Conor McCann and John ‘Rocky' Dillon.
The rest of the side never got near their full capacity.
Murphy, earning his first NHL start after several impressive substitute appearances, assumed free-taking duties and found his range 10 times from placed balls.
The O'Donovan Rossa attacker also escaped the clutches of the Westmeath defence to grab two points from play – one in each half - and could easily have raised a green flag just before the break but his cheeky lob over visiting ‘keeper Paddy Maloney from close range trickled wide.
At the other end Allan Devine was flawless from placed balls.
The Castlepollard wing-forward accounted for nearly two-thirds of his side's final tally and was easily the most impressive player on view.
It was his fine pass out of defence that led to the score of the game in the 63rd minute.
Under pressure from a ruck of Antrim forwards, Devine found Derek McNicholas in the middle of the field and he off-loaded to Niall O'Brien who slung over a beautiful score to put three points between the sides [1-13 to 0-19].
Antrim needed a stoppage-time major to rescue a point and despite two close-range frees Neil McManus couldn't ripple Westmeath's well-protected net.
Had one of McManus's efforts found the target it would have been rough justice on Westmeath who were a few points better than what the final scoreboard read.
“We're very disappointed with our performance,” said Antrim assistant Neal Peden.
“I just didn't think we were at full throttle today. We'll go back to the drawing board for next week. We just didn't seem to have the bite we've had for the last couple of weeks. It just wasn't there but hopefully we'll be ready for the final.
“But, let's be fair to Westmeath, they had a bad start to the League and are one of the better teams in the League. We knew that.
“Our goal this year was to get to a League final. We've got to the final, now that results have gone our way and I think we'll get a better performance next week.”
Antrim's attacking plan was a bit one-dimensional yesterday. They consistently tried to drop the ball into their corner-forwards – a tactic that didn't yield much success - rather than varying their attacking play and attempting more efforts on Westmeath's posts from distance.
The plus points from an Antrim perspective were that key players Paul Shiels and Neil McManus got a full 70 minutes apiece and Murphy's gutsy show in attack, while there's a handful of starters now not so sure of retaining the jersey for next weekend's League decider that should act as a boost.
Looking ahead to another meeting with Carlow, whom they drew with in Dr Cullen Park last month, Peden said: “Carlow are a physical team, they've a physical half-back line and we've to overcome that. We felt we were faster and sharper than them when we played them, but they had that physicality over us.”
If they were going to have an off-day, it was better to have it yesterday.
The defeat should also focus minds during the week as the prize of Division 1B hurling next year is now within touching distance.
Antrim: C O'Connell; S Rooney, J Dillon, Ciaran Johnston; S McCrory, M Donnelly, P Burke; E Campbell, P Shiels; N McManus (0-1 free), C McCann, Conor Johnston (0-1); C Clarke (1-0), N McAuley, D Murphy (0-12, 0-10 frees) Subs: N McKenna (0-1) for E Campbell (44), P McGill for Conor Johnston (63), T Coyle for S Rooney (65)
Yellow cards: M Donnelly (54)
Red cards: Ciaran Johnston (45)
Westmeath: P Maloney; C Shaw, T Doyle, T Gallagher; A Craig, P Greville (0-1 free), G Greville; A Clarke (0-2), A Cox; A Devine (0-13, 0-10 frees), N Mitchell, N O'Brien (0-1); J Galvin (0-1), D McNicholas (0-2), D Egerton Subs: J Boyle for A Craig (16)
Yellow cards: J Boyle (35)
Referee: J Heffernan (Wexford)
Allianz: for more information visit www.allianz.ie