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Saffrons labour to see off battling Westmeath

Antrim dazzled at times, but at others looked decidedly vulnerable as they safely moved through to the second stage of the All-Ireland hurling championship qualifiers. They outclassed their opponents in the first half to lead by 10 at half-time, but then displayed a soft centre which will cause their manager Dinny Cahill serious concern, as the Leinster men battled their way back to close the gap to three.

In the end, Westmeath, after a heroic effort, ran out of steam, and despite Brendan Murtagh's 10-point haul, they were soundly beaten at Casement Park. Antrim had their own scoring sensation in Neil McManus, who split the posts 11 times, but they always needed the cushion given to them by Conor McCann's two first-half goals.

Ciarán Curley and Neil McManus exchanged early points, but when midfielders Paul Shiels and Ciarán Herron powered over long-range efforts, the Saffrons led by 0-4 to 0-1 with seven minutes played.

And they stretched the advantage with a ninth-minute goal, Conor McCann collecting Darren Hamill's pass to drill a low shot past Cathal Scally. But the Leinster men pulled back a goal three minutes later, Paul Greville netting from the tightest of angles after Bryan Smyth's dropping delivery had been half-cleared by goalkeeper Chris O'Connell.

Antrim responded with another impressive flourish, fluid running and assured stickwork keeping them on the offensive. The Lake defence struggled to contain a fast and elusive Saffron attack, and they conceded the frees which McManus stroked confidently and accurately between the posts.

Darren Hamill and Karl Stewart added mighty efforts from play as the Ulster men opened up a nine-point advantage. Back came Westmeath again, with Paddy Dowdall and Smyth driving their challenge. They hit four points on the spin to get themselves right back into it, three of them from Murtagh.

Antrim had a goal chance when Kieran McGourty released McManus, but his effort was kept out by Scally, and as Shiels latched on to the rebound, his snapshot was deflected out for a '65, which McManus converted. But they did claim a second goal five minutes before the interval, McManus pulling the ball back to the far post for McCann to blast home.

An eighth point from McManus sent Antrim in with a commanding 2-16 to 1-9 advantage, but they were pressed onto the back foot in the early stages of the second half by a determined Westmeath side. Derek McNicholas hit the target three times, and there were also scores from Dowdall and Murtagh as they scored seven points in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. When Dowdall galloped through to fire through his third point, an 11-point deficit had been trimmed back to just three, and the Lake County men were very much back in business.

Antrim full-back Cormac Donnelly drove a 90-metre free between the posts, and McManus rediscovered the finishing touch, with two frees which made it a five-point game going into the final quarter. There was still plenty of fight left in the men from the Midlands, and as the Ulster side battled to rediscover their shape and fluency, Westmeath still felt they had a chance of carving a result out of this one.

Christopher Flanagan and Darren McCormack defended superbly to snuff out a couple of Antrim attacks, but as tiredness began to set in and the legs started to hurt, the challenge fell away in the closing stages.

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McCann and substitute Colm McFall stretched the Antrim lead, and Shiels gave them a massive lift when he charged through the middle to hoist an inspirational score.

Murtagh went for goal at the other end direct from a 20-metre free, but the attempt was easily dealt with, and the body language of his colleagues made it clear that their hopes of advancing in the All-Ireland series had long since evaporated.

Scorers -- Antrim: C McCann 2-1, N McManus 0-11 (8f, 1 '65), P Shiels 0-3, K Stewart, D Hamill, S McCrory 0-2 each, C Donnelly (f), A Graffin, C Herron, C McFall (f) 0-1 each. Westmeath: P Greville 1-0, B Murtagh 0-10 (5f, 1 s-l), P Dowdall, P McNicholas 0-3 each, J Shaw 0-2, C Curley 0-1.

Antrim: C O'Connell; C McGuinness, C Donnelly, K McGourty; A Graffin, M Herron, N McAuley; P Shiels, C Herron; S McCrory, K Stewart, N McManus; C McCann, D Hamill, J Black. Subs: K Molloy for C Herron (50), C McFall for Black (55), B McFall for M Herron (66), J McCouaig for McGourty.

Westmeath: C Scully; C Flanagan, D McCormack, A McGrath; E Price, A Mitchell, P Gilsenan; P Dowdall, B Smyth; C Curley, P Greville, B Murtagh; J Shaw, D McNicholas, D Carthy. Subs: A Price for McGrath (h-t), Alan Devine for Carthy (44).

Referee: T Carroll (Offaly)

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