Wednesday 21 March 2018

Famous Kilkenny victory evidence of staggering leap from Westmeath in just three years

Aidan Moran
Aidan Moran
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The euphoria was still palpable around Cusack Park in Mullingar on Wednesday night when a much abbreviated Westmeath senior hurling squad began a training session ahead of their Leinster quarter-final against Galway next week.

Their U-21 team, 20 of whom they can now count as senior team-mates, had just delivered the biggest upset in underage hurling for many years and the hum from the stands and around the ground had yet to die down.

In the middle conducting affairs was former Kilkenny All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper Michael Walsh, himself a former U-21 manager of his native county who was in charge when they won an All-Ireland in 2008.

Walsh, brought in by Michael Ryan as coach to the seniors, is also part of the U-21 backroom team and is around Kilkenny and Leinster hurling long enough to know the significance of the result.

These are worrying times for the much-famed Kilkenny conveyor belt. While their dominance at colleges level is much pronounced, they are now four years without a provincial U-21 title and are out of both underage competitions by May.

For Westmeath, it is another chapter in the development of Leinster's hurling's 'underclass'.

On a night when Carlow saw off Laois to back up their 2013 victory over Dublin and two-point defeat by Kilkenny 12 months ago, Westmeath took things to another level.

Their progress is all the more remarkable given that Kilkenny were Leinster champions in the corresponding minor year, 2013, while Westmeath lost to neighbours Meath by four points.

The current U-21 manager Adrian Moran, who works with Ryan and Walsh as a senior selector, paid tribute to the standard of coaching at club level in that pocket of Westmeath above the N4 and along the border with Meath that remains the county's hurling heartland.

Moran said the minor team of three years ago has few links with this week's giant-slayers.

"There are five of last year's minor team that beat Wexford in the Leinster Championship who have gone straight through. There are a few from the previous year's minor team too, but we're not getting players coming through every year," he claimed.

Moran feels it's easier for a county with Westmeath's profile to perform to a higher standard at U-21 level because the window is greater.

"It's down to the level of coaching that fellas are getting. I'm involved with Westmeath since 2003 at underage level, there is huge work going in at different times. I'm currently with the U-14s and there are seven or eight real good quality hurlers. But when you come to minor, seven or eight isn't good enough."

Another factor is the communal effort between senior and U-21 squads with that 20-strong overlap and the benefit that has accrued from a successful round-robin.

Resources are shared and Moran is quick to praise the input of performance coach Denis Coen, a former All-Ireland club football winner with Ballina Stephenites and Niamh Guy, their physio.

"Niamh is in there at 5.30 in the morning treating fellas to get them right. Sometimes he'll treat a player twice in the day. No stone is unturned."

Former Dublin, football and manager Tommy Carr, a long-time resident of the county, is the squad's strength and conditioning coach, and Moran has their improvement in that aspect of their game.

"You could count of seven or eight times when we put them out over the sideline in the second half," said Moran of Wednesday night's landmark success. "The roar of the crowd, you'd think there was 10,000 in Cusack Park. We've done over 100 sessions this season.

"We train together four nights a week. The downside is that we don't get much time together. In our only challenge Offaly beat us by about 15 points."

But because of the numbers they carry Moran points to the quality of internal games they can play.

"We are at a stage where, for in-house games, we have substitutes which probably would have been unheard of over the last number of years.

"Having to tell lads to stand on the sideline during training games, that's what Kilkenny are at all the time. If you can't play 15 on 15 and replicate match situations? That has really benefited us this year."

Moran's sidekick and former Westmeath player Darren McCormack attributes their early Christy Ring Cup successes as a pathway to development.

"They got us up and running, I'd feel. Players are different now, they're all going to college and they have no fear of each other. It's a different mindset."

Meanwhile, midfielder Warren Casserly required nine stitches to a nasty facial wound which he sustained and then graphically revealed on social media. The goalscorer spent the night in hospital.

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