IT’S not often you see a manager smiling after his team has just been beaten by more than double scores, but that was the case in Mullingar on Saturday evening.
Such was the accepted gulf in class between the two teams — at opposite end of the All-Ireland scale — that the bookies were offering even money on Westmeath with a 22-point head start.
The Midlanders beat those odds with several points to spare, which explained why manager Seamus Qualter was so pleased.
"Well done?" someone tentatively ventured.
"It was well done," he instantly agreed, "this is a result for us, we beat the odds anyway. We knew the 20, 25, 30 points, that was something we could be afraid of, but they got in for just one goal, and that was off a mistake we made."
In their 10 previous championship meetings, the average score was 5-16 to 1-8, the Kilkenny winning margin averaging 20 points, so Qualter did have reason to feel pleased.
Brian Cody, meanwhile, said: "We’re quite happy the way it went ... We came up to win the game, we did, now we’re in the Leinster final."
"I thought Westmeath were very spirited, showed decent resistance. There was a terrific atmosphere, great turnout and [it was] great to see the passion for the game. They won the Christy Ring Cup last year, which was outstanding for them; now they’re in the Leinster championship, which has to bring on their game."
The problem for Cody is that he will have learned very little from this game, and, given events in the more competitive semi-final yesterday at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny go into the Leinster final at a real disadvantage.
It could have been even worse. A disgraceful pull by Westmeath midfielder Enda Loughlin across the hands of Kilkenny’s outstanding half-forward Martin Comerford, meant an early and painful departure for the multiple All-Star, to the local A&E unit.
Loughlin can be doubly grateful this morning. Firstly, reports yesterday suggested there was nothing broken in his mark’s hand.
Secondly, if referee John Sexton had a full view of the incident, Westmeath would be missing their talismanic midfielder for at least a month, but, as it happened, a yellow card means Loughlin will be available for the three upcoming qualifier games.
It’s fitting we should focus on the losers, in this game. Ever since they overcame Dublin in the first championship surprise of 2006, this story was always going to be about the midlanders. Kilkenny had sportingly agreed to give them home advantage and the local hurling supporters took full advantage, with several hundred maroon-and-white clad kids adding to a carnival atmosphere.
Westmeath did manage to hold the favourites, for nearly six minutes, before Eoin McCormack opened the scoring with a Kilkenny point that was negated almost immediately, to massive cheers, by Westmeath sharpshooter Andrew Mitchell. From there to the final whistle, however, those fans got very little else to cheer. Five points to one after 13 minutes; eight to two after 20; 13 to four after 30, Kilkenny were utterly dominant, their half-back line of Tyrell, Tennyson and Walsh particularly so, plucking balls from the clouds, starting attack after attack while midfielders Lyng and Mullally were also showing up well.
In the 32nd minute, whatever slim hopes Westmeath still had were well and truly blown away when wing-back John Shaw, lost possession and McCormack goaled from close range. Barry Kennedy did manage to get that goal back just on the stroke of half-time to again lift the crowd, but even by then, Westmeath were playing for pride.
"We actually did come to win," claimed Qualter; "We had to prepare that way. What were we going to do, stand up and look at them, or go out and have a right go at them?
"They’re a proud bunch of fellas and I’m very proud of them."
Westmeath did much better in the second period, losing it by just three points, eight to five. If there was ever a championship day, however, when it could be said that Kilkenny took their foot off the pedal, this was it. Westmeath full-back Christo Murtagh was impressive, but Henry Shefflin never looked like he was going full tilt. Neither could it be said that Kilkenny ever went for the jugular; a goal-scoring machine par excellence, they seemed content on this occasion to settle for their points, though credit is due to some excellent half-back defence from John Shaw, Darren McCormack and Noel Gavin, for Westmeath
"We’re still in with a shout of getting to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, no matter what way you look at it," says Qualter, "The next three games will define our lives up here, more so than any of the other counties, it’s so important to us. It’s all about survival, or even better, from here on in."
As for Kilkenny, "Veni, vidi, vici," and yes, they came, they saw, they conquered. Brian Cody will take it, but it’s not necessarily what he ordered.
Scorers for Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 0-8 (0-4 frees); E. McCormack 1-3; M. Comerford 0-3; M. Rice 0-3; J. Fitzpatrick 0-2; R. Mullally 0-2; D. Lyng, W. O’Dwyer, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Westmeath: A. Mitchell 0-5 (0-3 frees, 0-2 65’s); B. Kennedy 1-0; E. Loughlin, B. Connaughton, J. Clarke, D. McCormack, 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, JJ Delaney, D. Cody; J. Tyrell (c), J. Tennyson, T. Walsh; D. Lyng, R. Mullally; W. O’Dwyer, M. Comerford, E. Larkin; E. McCormack, H. Shefflin, J. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick.
Subs: M. Rice (Comerford inj. 48); PJ Delaney (Tennyson 50); P. Cleere (Larkin 57); J. Dalton (Walsh 58).
WESTMEATH: M. Briody; C. Jordan, C. Murtagh, P. Greville; J. Shaw (c), D. McCormack, N. Gavin; B. Connaughton, E. Loughlin; G. Gavin, B. Murtagh, A. Mitchell; J. Clarke, D. McNicholas, B. Kennedy.
Subs: D. Carty (McNicholas 40); D. Devine (G. Gavin 49); M. Williams (Greville 70); D. Faulkner (Connaughton 70); P. Gilsenan (Clarke 70).
Referee: J. Sexton (Limerick).