By Declan Rooney
Westmeath 2-19 Carlow 2-17
Brendan Murtagh's stunning second-half goal helped Westmeath to victory over Carlow in their opening Round Robin match of the Leinster hurling championship at Cusack Park.
Martin Kavanagh and Seamus Murphy hit the net in the first-half for Carlow, but a late rally from Pat English's side failed to earn his troops victory, and they now need a result next week against Laois to remain in with a chance of reaching the Leinster championship quarter-finals.
With the top two sides from the group qualifying for the Leinster championship and the bottom side to be relegated to the Christy Ring Cup next season there was plenty to fight for and both sides fought hard what would be a crucial two points in the division.
And the action was tigerish from the start as the Westmeath forwards forced an early turnover and a Niall O'Brien point in the first minute, but Carlow soon found their feet with points from Edward Coady and Martin Kavanagh.
Eoin Price levelled the game after ten minutes at 0-2 each with a super point from the left touchline and the sides swapped points until the 20th minute when Westmeath hit two in a minute from corner-forward Darragh Clinton to move 0-5 to 0-4 ahead.
The Lakesmen were worthy of that lead, but they fell behind in the 21st minute when Martin Kavanagh made the most of a loose shot puck-out from Peter Collins and rattled past the keeper for a 1-4 to 0-5 lead.
That setback seemed to lift Westmeath though, and with Alan Devine a growing influence at wing-forward they had retaken the lead two minute later. Points from Brendan Murtagh and Niall O'Brien levelled the game for the fifth time, before Devine fought hard along the endline and hit the net from close range.
Four points in a row from the home side gave them a healthy five point cushion as the half-time whistle approached, but Seamus Murphy's injury-time goal and points either side of it from Craig Wall and Martin Kavanagh somehow levelled the game at the break, 1-12 to 2-9.
After that setback before the break Westmeath did well to recover at the interval and McNicholas landed his first point three minutes after the restart and Murtagh tagged on a second moments later to give the home side a two point advantage.
Martin Kavanagh and Seamus Murphy hit two points in a row for Carlow to level the game once more, but the game's crucial score arrived in the 50th minute when McNicholas caught Shane McGovern's puck-out, fired a quick pass into Murtagh, who shrugged off John Rogers and blasted the ball to the top corner.
It was a stunning goal, worth of winning any game, but points immediately from O'Brien and McNicholas gave Westmeath a much needed cushion.
Carlow went on to hit the last three points of the game to put two between the sides, but they were unable to force the goal they needed in injury-time and they now badly need a win against Laois next weekend to resurrect their challenge.
Westmeath: N O'Brien 0-7 (2f), A Devine 1-3, B Murtagh 1-2, D McNicholas 0-3, E Price, D Clinton 0-2 each.
Carlow: M Kavanagh 1-7 (4f, 2'65), Seamus Murphy 1-2, Sean Murphy 0-3, C Wall 0-2, E Coady, P Coady, J M Nolan 0-1 each.
Westmeath: P Collins; S Power, T Doyle, A McGrath; A Craig, A Clarke, G Greville; C Boyle, E Price; A Devine, D McNicholas, R Greville; N O'Brien, B Murtagh, D Clinton.
Subs: S McGovern for Collins (h-t), J Clarke for McGrath (51 mins), E Corrigan for Clinton (72 mins).
Carlow: K Kehoe; R Coady, J Rogers, A Corcoran; E Coady, D English, G Coady; D Byrne, C Wall; S Murphy, E Byrne, J M Nolan; J Kavanagh, M Kavanagh, S Murphy.
Subs: P Coady for J M Nolan (55 mins), D O'Neill for Wall (68 mins).
Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow).