FROM an historical perspective, the notion of a giant gulf in class existing between the footballers of Westmeath and Carlow is certainly open to dispute.
Even in their last two summer campaigns, the pro-Carlow lobby could point to their qualification for a Leinster semi-final in 2011 and their shock draw with Meath last June. But why, then, are they such rank outsiders – 6/1 – for tomorrow's opening instalment of the 2013 Leinster Senior Football Championship?
A couple of reasons; partly to do with Carlow, mostly to do with Westmeath's spring resurgence.
The hosts are heading for Division One next season by dint of their incredible necklace of backs-to-the-wall victories in the second tier. Pat Flanagan's men trailed in all seven of their regulation league outings, sometimes by as many as five or six points, yet they recovered to win five and draw one, thereby securing promotion with a game to spare. That bespeaks two qualities in the maroon dressing-room; physical and mental resilience.
True, some of the gloss was removed by their heavy defeat (when fielding an experimental team) on the last day in Derry and also by their Division Two final defeat to the same county, albeit Derry's 1-3 burst in injury-time painted a misleading six-point differential on the scoreboard.
At the same time that Westmeath were patenting their reputation as the comeback kings, Carlow were doing what Carlow invariably do every spring; meandering along in the middle-to-lower reaches of the basement division.
Anthony Rainbow stepped up from his selector's role to assume the bainisteoir's bib this year and, initially, there were positive auguries as Carlow edged their first two games – against Tipperary and London – to be sitting pretty on four points.
Five matches later, they were still stuck on four ... and rooted in seventh place, below everyone bar London.
There were some heavy-ish defeats along the way, losing to Leitrim by seven, Clare by six and Waterford by five (at home) on the last day.
There is nothing in this downward-spiralling form guide to suggest they are capable of uncorking the massive display – by Carlow standards – that may be required to ambush an upwardly mobile opponent in their own back yard.
That said, it's not as if the comparatively high-flying Westmeath have established a reputation for blitzing vulnerable opposition.
Their propensity for slow starts – which again manifested itself in the league final before they belatedly exploded into point-scoring life during the second quarter – is clearly something in need of addressing.
That may partly explain why Dessie Dolan, hitherto mostly utilised as an impact sub this year, is now in from the start.
Given his influential contributions off the bench and his enduring ability to chisel out points off either foot, Dolan's promotion is entirely justified.
It may be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul – the subs list suddenly appears devoid of likely game-changers – but the 2004 All Star has a proven first-quarter record of bursting from the scoring blocks. In which case he could well be the man to (a) eradicate those slow starts and (b) stifle Carlow's shock potential from the off.
Dolan apart, Flanagan appears to have gone with Westmeath's strongest available line-up by recalling skipper Kieran Gavin (after his recent work accident woes) to full-back and also with some positional tinkering that sees John Gaffey move out to wing-back and James Dolan revert to more familiar wing-forward haunts.
Carlow, intriguingly, have listed Brendan Murphy at centre-forward. That won't stop speculation that their towering talisman will revert to midfield at some stage for a standout duel with another ex-Aussie Rules man, John Heslin.
Heslin, for all his impressive deadball returns this spring, hasn't achieved the soaring heights in open play of which we all know he is capable.
Just as intriguing as Murphy's location will be how Carlow set up; there were whispers of 13 men behind the ball arising from a recent challenge match against Longford.
If they can keep it tight early on, there is always the possibility that Westmeath could succumb to frustration and even nerves.
But it's a slim enough prospect. The hosts to advance and start dreaming of the Dubs ...
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Westmeath 1/7, Draw 12/1, Carlow 6/1