The Joe McDonagh Cup is fast becoming a wide-open competition, with each participant having the ability to beat the others amid a surprise result in each round.
Kerry’s 10-point defeat of Laois last week falls into that category, but unbeaten Westmeath will pose another major challenge for the Kingdom, who are playing with a new-found confidence under manager Fintan O’Connor.
O’Connor’s side shot 3-20 against Laois, along with 17 wides, but, with Michael Ryan’s Westmeath averaging 3-23 per game, the Kerry boss is braced for an onslaught in Tralee on Sunday.
“We can’t dwell too much on the win over Laois, because Westmeath are coming down to Tralee on the back of two very big wins. Although you don’t want to say it out loud, beating Laois was a must-win game for us, because it makes a huge difference when facing Westmeath with a win under our belt, as opposed to being 0-2.
“We have young players in our team who needed to have a championship win under their belt. The likes of Barry O’Mahony, who played his first championship game against Carlow, has yet to play senior championship with his club, and he was excellent against Laois. There are more like him; when you have young lads like Shane Conway, Tomás O’Connor, John Buckley, Brandon Barrett, Jack Goulding and Maurice O’Connor, you are dealing with boys rather than men, so they must be enjoying their hurling.
“You have to be careful about making them feel that every game is a pressure game, a do-or-die and a must-win game, but this Joe McDonagh Cup is fast becoming a competition where you can be looking up one week towards a final slot or down another week and trying to avoid relegation or a relegation play-off game.“
O’Connor has been playing different systems, using Mikey Boyle, his best ball-winning attacker, as sweeper or extra defender, while players appear to move around, adopting a man- marking role
“We have a game plan that we think will suit best against whatever opponents we are playing. So, while Mikey Boyle would be used by his club Ballyduff as a forward, we sometimes use him where we think he is best fit for the team. There are few better ball winners than Mikey, he reads the game well and is hard to get by.
“Everyone has to be selfless and they are. They will do anything for the team and that is what we need.
“Westmeath are flying too and they went down to Laois and won there for the first time in 40 years. We are under no illusions about the task in hand, but Laois were probably favourites to win the competition and we beat them, so we think we can compete with any team.”
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