Lake men dig deep to book spot in last eight
Westmeath 1-18 Meath 0-19
Having just watched his Westmeath side overcome the disadvantage of playing with 14 men for a full half against Meath, Michael Ryan insists things are not going to get any easier and only "the performance of our lives" will suffice to defeat Offaly in the Leinster SHC quarter-final.
Much like their round-robin defeat to Kerry, Westmeath soldiered for the second half against the odds after Derek McNicholas' straight red card in the 34th minute for an off-the-ball altercation with Shane Brennan.
Despite playing second fiddle in the opening exchanges, a dominant half-back line helped push Ryan's side into the ascendancy as the half wore on, with Allan Devine's free-taking prowess easing them into a 0-9 to 0-4 lead by the time McNicholas received his marching orders.
The Royals struggled for traction up front for long periods but came roaring back before the break with first-half substitute James Kelly making an instant impact to hit the final two points of a scrappy 35 minutes.
With the wind at their backs and an extra man in defence, the Royals battled hard in an exciting second half but couldn't draw level; they trailed 0-13 to 0-12 after 50 minutes, before Killian Doyle capped a brilliant display for Westmeath with the all-important goal.
With Tommy 'Jogger' Doyle and Paul Greville imperious at the back, Westmeath were able to keep their noses in front as Aonghus Clarke powered into the game at midfield, while Robbie Greville's class kept the Meath defence on their toes.
Adam Gannon did get some joy up front, hitting four points for the Royals but not even the move of Damian Healy from centre-back to centre-forward was enough for Martin Ennis' men as the home side held on.
For Ryan, it was a sweet victory as defeat would have signalled relegation to the Christy Ring Cup for 2018, something he couldn't contemplate, and the relief was etched all over his face after earlier round-robin defeats to Laois and Kerry.
"I enjoy that, that's what we are in the game for. It's the big battles you are here for. And this was a big battle. I was always worried about the third-year syndrome. We had two great years in Westmeath but I was always worried about the third year," Ryan said.
"If you don't have success - and you gauge success in playing in Croke Park and winning titles - it's very hard to commit for the third year. We were slow starting off but hopefully this win will give us momentum and confidence and a platform to show what this team is capable of because we have a lot of good hurlers on this team."
It sets up a repeat of last year's round-robin clash with Offaly, a 14-point mauling regarded as one of the Faithful's darkest hurling days, and there was a palpable giddiness around TEG Cusack Park when news came through that they had avoided Davy's Fitzgerald's Wexford.
Two Déise men will be patrolling the sidelines, with Offaly boss Kevin Ryan also a Waterford native, but Ryan is under no illusions about the scale of their task.
"It's an opportunity in two weeks, but no more than that. We've got to go out and perform," Ryan said.
"We've got to improve a lot of aspects of our game; if we do that then we have a chance. There is a big winning tradition in Offaly, so we'll have to produce the performance of our lives to have a chance."
For last year's Christy Ring Cup winners Meath, it's a step in the wrong direction as they fall back to hurling's second tier on score difference, and Ennis rued a lack of ruthlessness.
"If we outnumber them on the pitch we should outscore them," he said before conceding that the "damage was done" in a 15-point hiding at home to Laois.
With promotion to Division 2A secured for next year, Ennis is optimistic about their future but going seven months without a competitive game isn't his idea of developing "so-called lesser counties", and he called for assistance from top-tier managers.
"Meath need to come out of the Christy Ring next year or there is no progression, simple as, but we're now laid up for seven months. How is anybody supposed to prepare a team when you sit down for seven months?" he asked.
"It's too long for the lesser teams, as they call us. I would like some of the top managers in the country to get behind some of the lesser teams and say 'these guys are entitled to play hurling in July'.
"Maybe it's time to revamp the whole thing. We're working hard, that's a good young bunch in there and this will stand to us in the long run but it wouldn't be so bad if we got a hand from the lads above as well."
SCORERS - Westmeath: A Devine 0-9 (6fs), K Doyle 1-3, A Clarke, R Greville 0-2 each, D McNicholas, C Boyle 0-1 each. Meath: S Clynch 0-5 (3fs), A Gannon 0-4, D Kelly (1f), S Quigley (2fs), J Kelly, K Keoghan 0-2 each, M O'Sullivan, G McGowan 0-1 each.
WESTMEATH - P Maloney 7; S Power 7, T Doyle 9, T Gallagher 6; A Craig 7, P Greville 8, C Shaw 7; A Clarke 8, G Greville 7; D McNicholas 6, K Doyle 8, C Boyle 6; A Devine 8, N Mitchell 5, R Greville 8. Subs: N O'Brien 6 for Gallagher (55), J Boyle 6 for Mitchell (65), J Galvin for K Doyle (67), D Egerton for Shaw (72).
MEATH - S McGann 6; S Whitty 6, D Kelly 8, C Reilly 6; S Brennan 7, D Healy 8, K Keoghan 8; A Forde 6, S Geraghty 6; S Clynch 7, J Keena 6, K Keena 5; M O'Sullivan 6, N Heffernan 5, A Gannon 8. Subs: J Kelly 7 for K Keena (27), G McGowan 7 for Heffernan (35 +2), S Quigley 7 for J Keena (58), C McCabe 6 for M O'Sullivan (60), P Kelly 6 for Clynch (66).
REF - C Cunning (Antrim)