Kilkenny prevail in Leinster SHC’s opener as Westmeath’s challenge falters

Read the score above and you’ll happily conclude that this was a predictable mismatch between David and Goliath.

But that would do a great disservice to a struggling, sometimes even heroic Westmeath, who pushed Kilkenny out of his comfort zone in the first half before her legs went, and the difference in class was told in front of 2,500 spectators at TEG Cusack Park.

Hard to believe given the final 16-point lead, but Westmeath actually led by four points after 22 minutes as their defense threw a storm at their vaunted opponents, while Killian Doyle at the other end landed points from all angles.

But it couldn’t last, and in truth, nobody really expected the 16/1 underdogs to sustain it.

They were a goal down at half-time and still vaguely within reach at the three-quarter mark, six points adrift.

But then, in the 53rd minute, Billy Ryan sunk an unstoppable rebound from an prohibitive angle after Walter Walsh’s initial try was valiantly saved by Conor Bracken.

They were nine down and now the only question was how much – especially after Cormac Boyle’s 58th-minute strike found Pádraig Walsh across the legs, earning a second yellow card for the Westmeath midfielder.

For a while, things threatened to get ugly for 14 ailing men in maroon.

Three more goals followed down the stretch: Sub James Maher drilled a clean low shot from the break after another assist from Walter Walsh (58th minute); Then Walter himself came into play with a poison shot from Eoin Cody (66th minute); and finally, three minutes into stoppage time, TJ Reid bundled another rebound home after a first shot from his Ballyhale club-mate Cody was blocked.

However, within a minute, sub Owen McCabe buried a consolation goal for Westmeath. That was the least they deserved.

Reid made his first appearance that year, coming back from long club service and an injury. The veteran Scoresmith had a mixed half, missing three deadball attempts and still finishing 1-4. Typical TJ.

For Westmeath, despite the end result, which is rare, is wonderful: this was their first championship encounter with the Cats since 2006.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Already a veteran Kilkenny manager, the mastermind of three senior All-Irelands, Brian Cody started the campaign in 2006 with a 14-point win at Mullingar, the launch pad for Kilkenny’s famous four-in-a-row.

There was only one Westmeath survivor from that opportunity, veteran forward Derek McNicholas. But since then, everything has changed on the sidelines: Seamus Qualter was her manager 16 years ago, and since then there have been seven “outside” bosses, most recently Joe Fortune.

And the Dublin-based Wexforder must have been delighted by his side’s wonderfully defiant first half. The half-time score was a pity, a flattering 1:12 to 0:12 lead for the sluggish guests.

Doyle was outrageously good in that first half. His ten-point haul included seven frees of varying difficulty and three spectacular attempts from the game, one from the right touchline and then two even better shots from the left.

Admittedly, it was thanks to Bracken’s sharp reflexes that the debutant’s keeper saved a Padraig Walsh chance on goal in the 16th minute.

But Doyle’s third point from the game left the Division 2A champions in dreamland, leading 10-0, 6-0 after 22 minutes.

However, the game was turned on its head two minutes later when Mikey Carey scored Kilkenny’s first goal with a finish his father DJ would have been proud of.

The goal had an accidental origin: Tommy Doyle had been immense in that early stage but his half-block on Martin Keoghan fell nicely in Carey’s path. The full-back didn’t need a second invitation and his team added six of the next eight points.

Not that watching Cody was overly impressed, picking up Keoghan and then Cian Kenny at the break, although the latter scored with the final act of the half.

Goalscorers – Kilkenny: A Murphy 0-7 (6f), TJ Reid 1-4 (1’65’, 2f), W Walsh 1-2, P Walsh 0-4, B Ryan, J Maher 1-1 each, M Carey 1-0 , A Mullen 0-2, C Kenny, E Cody 0-1 each. Westmeath: K Doyle 0-14 (11f), O McCabe 1-0, J Boyle 0-2, N O’Brien, D Glennon, D Egerton 0-1 each.

Kilkenny: E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; M Carey, P Deegan, D Blanchfield; Kenny C, Mullen A; W Walsh, P Walsh, E Cody; B Ryan, M Keoghan, A Murphy. Subtitle: J Donnelly for Keoghan (34), TJ Reid for Kenny (ht), J Maher for A Murphy (46), C Browne for Blanchfield (59), S Walsh for Ryan (66).

Westmeath: C bracken; D Egerton, C Shaw, J Galvin; A Craig, T Doyle, K Regan; C Boyle, R Greville; J Boyle, D McNicholas, D Glennon; N O’Brien, N Mitchell, K Doyle. Subtitle: E Keyes for O’Brien (50), C Doyle for McNicholas (55), T Gallagher for Craig (62), T Gallagher for Craig (62), O McCabe for J Boyle (68).

Referee: R McGann (Clare). Kilkenny prevail in Leinster SHC’s opener as Westmeath’s challenge falters

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