By NIALL SHERRY
Brian Dowling’s team had to dig deep to break the resolve of a very plucky Westmeath challenge on a sweltering day in Mullingar.
Despite prevailing by nine points at the long whistle, this was not the ideal preparation for a top of the table showdown with old foes Galway tomorrow. Afterwards Cats bainisteoir Dowling described his sides performance as the worst of his reign, and he will hope this acts as a timely reminder ahead of the final group game.
Katie Nolan opened the scoring, but Westmeath hit back with a goal and a point from to lead by three in the early stages at TEG Cusack Park. Denise Gaule was uncharacteristically inaccurate from frees, leaving four behind as Westmeath sensed an upset. After the opening 15 minutes, the Lake County lead by two, 1-2 to 0-3. Gaule would break her miss streak at the fifth attempt of asking.
Westmeath’s danger-woman, Megan Dowdall added two more frees to extend the home sides lead to four at the much needed first half water break. When play restarted, Gaule added another free, but again Darren McCormack’s side replied via a Sheila McGrath point.
Windgap’s Gaule then registered her first point from play with five minutes of the half remaining, but Clonkill forward Dowdall pointed again, her fifth of the match. Aoife Doyle then saw a goal chance denied as keeper Fiona Keating turned her effort round the post, only for Gaule to slot over the resulting ‘45. Three more scores would follow, one for the Cats via Steffi Fitzgerald as Limerick referee Kevin O’Brien brought the half to a close. Surprisingly, Westmeath lead by four, 1-8 to 0-7.
Such was the manager’s displeasure at his sides first half showing, he made three changes at the break, with Michaela Kenneally, Collette Dormer and Laura Murphy replacing Miriam Bambrick, Michelle Teehan and Grace Walsh respectively.
The Stripey women needed to lift their game, and wing forward Gaule slotted over a free from just inside the Westmeath ‘45. Mary O’Connell then pointed, reducing the deficit to two points, only to see Scally and Dowdell reply to restore the home side’s four-point lead after ten minutes of the second half. The home crowd believed that a famous scalp was about to be taken.
Two further points from the Windgap duo of Kenneally and Gaule and another from 37th minute substitute Katie Power left just the bare minimum between the sides as the Cats trailed 1-10 to 0-12. As the second water break approached, the games crucial score arrived. Young Ireland’s Fitzgerald found full forward Miriam Walsh who fired to the net, raising the green flag. The Cats tails were up.
Gaule struck two more points, including one from play, before Katie Nolan struck her third point of the day. All of a sudden Kilkenny had a five-point lead. The home side looked shattered as the impressive Steffi Fitzgerald hit a lovely long-range point. To their credit Westmeath tried to rally, but St Martin’s sharp-shooter Nolan then raised her team’s second green flag of the day. There was to be no fairytale finish for a courageous Westmeath side as the final score on the long whistle saw Brian Dowling’s side run out 2-17 to 1-11 winners.
Kilkenny Scorers- Denise Gaule (0-8, 0-5fs, 0-1 45); Katie Nolan (1-3); Miriam Walsh (1-0); Michaela Kenneally and Steffi Fitzgerald (0-2 each); Katie Power and Mary O’Connell (0-1 each).
Team: Kilkenny- Emma Kavanagh; Michelle Teehan, Claire Phelan, Davina Tobin; Kellyann Doyle, Meighan Farrell, Miriam Bambrick; Niamh Deely, Grace Walsh; Denise Gaule, Mary O’Connell, Steffi Fitzgerald; Katie Nolan, Miriam Walsh, Aoife Doyle. Subs: Michaela Kenneally for Bambrick h-t, Collette Dormer for Teehan h-t, Laura Murphy for G.Walsh h-t, Katie Power for A.Doyle 37 mins, Aoife Prendergast for O’Connell 45 mins.
Westmeath Scorers- Megan Dowdall (0-5, 0-4fs); Sheila McGrath (0-3); Hannah Core (1-0); Muireann Scally (0-2, 0-2f); Meabh Scally (0-1).
Team: Westmeath- Fiona Keating; Dearbhail McLoughlin, Emily McCabe, Laura Doherty; Amy Cully, Fiona Leavy, Aisling Egerton; Muireann Scally, Jade McKeogh; Megan Dowdall, Jane Nangle, Sheila McGrath; Hannah Core, Meabh Scally, Aoife Doherty. Subs: Caoimhe McCrossan for Nangle h-t.
On paper, this was expected to be the least taxing of the three group games in the championship for Brian Dowling’s team, but games are seldom won on paper. This game served as a timely reminder that the champions will not have an easy ride as they seek to defend the title won last winter.
Emptying the bench clearly added some much-needed vigor to the Cats performance in Mullingar. This year has seen Katie Nolan step up and the St Martin’s forward has undoubtably been the county’s star performer this season. We will need Katie to continue in this vein as the championship progresses.
It was also great to see Katie Power raise a flag, as she was sprung from the bench again and banked some more vital match time.
Tomorrow’s challenge see’s Galway roll into Callan, and we can expect a much more energised display from Dowling’s side. They will be more than aware that a similar first forty minutes against the westerners will inevitably result in defeat. We will need Denise Gaule firing on all cylinders, especially from frees. If Aoife Doyle and Steffi Fitzgerald can hit top form, we have enough in attack to trouble any defence. Talking of defence, we will need to keep a close eye on Carrie Dolan, a deadly forward.
A special mention to Westmeath, who can be incredibly proud of their performance. This will have re-enforced the belief that the Lake county are heading in the right direction under the guidance of Darren McCormack.
You sometimes learn more about a team when things aren’t going well, and this group has shown over the last 12 months that they can find a way to solve most puzzles presented.
Clare and Westmeath done. Now for Galway. Ladies and Gentlemen…. let the championship begin.