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Wesmteath veteran Shaw eager to face Galway

FOR the first time since 2006, Mullingar welcomes one of Leinster hurling's big guns when Galway come to town on this evening.

It's five years since Kilkenny visited, en route to the first of their four consecutive All-Ireland titles. The Cats had 14 points to spare, which came inside the home team's stated goal of keeping them to 'a point a man,' but something had been stirred in the county's hurling heartlands.

Waiting for interviews afterwards, Henry Shefflin eventually appeared outside the dressing-rooms, almost an hour after the final whistle still in his full kit. He was grimacing, clutching his hand, but he wasn't injured, he had just signed the last of must have been hundreds of autographs and even he was taken aback by the level of interest.

Westmeath had beaten Dublin in the Leinster championship for the first time since 1982 to set up that date with Kilkenny, but disaster followed as they were demoted back to Christy Ring hurling in the next season after a relegation play-off defeat, ironically, to Dublin.

This year has been a mixed bag too. They'll play in Division 3 next year after losing all of their seven league matches. Westmeath manager Kevin Martin departed the scene, questioning the attitude of the squad as he left, and was replaced by Athenry's Brian Hanley on an interim basis. They got organised quickly enough to beat Carlow in their first round and, with Galway hot favourites, now find themselves in a no-lose situation.

"I know people say that playing Division 2 was bad for Clare and Limerick this year, but Division 3 is a total disaster for us," said veteran Westmeath hurler John Shaw. "We'll have to try and get straight back up.

"But we knew we had the players and a couple of them have come back in. It was up to us really to get it together and perform because we hadn't done ourselves justice up to that point. And in fairness to Brian, he has come in and freshened things up and the players have responded to it."

And like the game in 2006, Saturday evening will be well attended by the county's hurling fraternity who have reason to be growing in confidence. They are guaranteed Leinster championship hurling until 2013, while Shaw's club Raharney scalped Offaly champions Coolderry in the Leinster club SHC earlier this year.

Westmeath sides also won both the Division 2 and Division 3 of the National Feile last year, while the current minor side are making waves and face Dublin for a place in their first provincial final at the grade next week.

"In many ways that minor game is the more important for hurling in the county. If they could make the final, it'd be great," said Shaw.

"Galway are one of the top teams in the country and it can only be good for hurling that they are coming to play us. It'll stoke up some interest. We're out to give a good account of ourselves on Saturday, as we did it against Kilkenny a few years ago and if we deliver the performance we can be proud of, then I think we can then be happy."

Irish Independent