Why Westmeath hurling is no flash in the pan
By John Harrington
Before the Westmeath U-21 hurlers made headlines on Wednesday evening by beating Kilkenny in Cusack Park, the stadium had already borne witness to the thriving health of the game in the county.
The Westmeath Cumann na mBunscol Finals were played over the course of the afternoon, and both the quality and quantity of the teams involved was highly impressive. Hurling is thriving at that level and all levels in Westmeath now, and that’s thanks to the county’s very well run coaching and development structures, proactive clubs, and the passion and dedication of a small group of people who have been toiling at the coal-face of Westmeath hurling for the last number of years.
The County’s Games Development Administrator, James Heffernan, falls squarely into that bracket. He took huge satisfaction from the win over Kilkenny because it’s a great reward for all the hard work that has been and is being done, and he sees no reason why Westmeath should not aspire to have more days like it.
“I'm not going to say it wasn't a shock, of course it was, but you'd be hoping in a couple of years that you'd be making it a more regular occurrence and you'd be competing against all of the teams in Leinster anyway and maybe getting a bit further along,” Heffernan told GAA.ie.
“I suppose Westmeath is a small hurling county in so far as there are only 15 hurling clubs in the county but of those 15 now at underage in the past ten years or so all of them would have underage teams coming through which is a big help. Even yesterday evening, of the U-21 team that started there were eight different clubs represented and in the panel as a whole there were 11 clubs. So that's not bad going.
“The clubs are working really hard and there's a lot happening in the Primary School end of things between teachers in the schools and stuff like that. There's a lot or work going on in the Secondary Schools as well. The CBS in Mullingar and St. Finian's would be two schools in Mullingar that are doing a lot of work. There would be hurling people in those schools along with Rochfortbridge and Castlepollard.
“We have a Westmeath combined schools team as well, and they entered into the 'A competitions this year at Juvenile level. We competed fairly well at that level, which would be U-14 1/2. Out of the five games we played we won three of them. We were beaten by St. Kieran's Kilkenny in the first game by eight or nine points in the end, but we were pretty competitive in the game until they pulled away in the final 10 or 15 minutes.
“The development squads for the past number of years have been strong. We restructured them in the last three or four years again and we have good structures in place at U-13, U-14, and U-15 level and very good people working with them. We've set up a link with Athlone IT so the U-15s this year will be going in there for testing, player-profiling and strength and conditioning. We'd be confident that those teams coming up are going to be competitive and hopefully in a couple of years the 'shock' will be taken out of the headlines for Westmeath hurling!”
Perhaps we are reaching that point already. After all, the Westmeath minors beat Wexford in the Championship last year and the county seniors hammered Offaly in the Leinster Round Robin this year and will fancy having a cut off Galway in the Leinster Quarter-Finals.
Westmeath draw most of their hurlers from a relatively small heartland in the north of the County, but Heffernan sees no reason why they cannot go from strength to strength in the coming years.
“If you talked to anybody in the clubs they'd 100 per cent say that there's lots of potential for more improvement because there's more work to be done,” says Heffernan. “I'd say we're currently only at 60 or 70 per cent of our potential. There is a lot more to be done and there's a lot more work that we can do. But I think in the next couple of years if we can get things right that we can definitely improve further and have a bright future.
“It's not going to be every year that we have wins like the one the U-21s have pulled off over Kilkenny, but if you could do it every second or third year it would be brilliant. There's a lot of people working hard and we've started to see the dividends in the last couple of years. But there were lots of people working hard long before then.”
Westmeath’s victorious U-21 manager Adrian Moran is one of those who has been putting his shoulder to the wheel for a good number of years. He is also a selector on the senior team management and a joint-manager of the U-14 development squad. That doesn’t mark him out as anything special in Westmeath though in terms of dedication, because were you to go through all the development squad managers or trainers they too are also double or triple-jobbing in other roles.
Wednesday’s win over Kilkenny was surely Moran’s greatest ever day yet as a Westmeath mentor, but it says a lot about his mind-set that by the following morning he was already formulating how he could build on the success rather than simply bask in it.
“I was talking to Adrian Moran at half eight this morning and I don't think he had slept at all!”, laughs Heffernan. “He was saying he was still up at 4 o'clock anyway and was still running through the match in his head. This is a man who is not unique in terms of the huge work he has put in to Westmeath hurling. He'd say that himself.
“But in fairness to Adrian, he has been with every team from U-13 up to senior and every development squad level over the past 12 years or so. This isn't a fluke with this guy either. But at half-eight this morning the conversation was 'how do we improve on this and capitalise on the success?' So in the next couple of weeks we'll be doing some sort of programme with our U-12s and roping some of the county seniors and U-21s in to help out with the coaching and striking while the iron is hot.
“Going forward you have to improve because every other county is improving as well. I think the standard of hurler that we're producing in Westmeath has gotten better over the years, but every other county is getting better as well. Whatever we're doing is being mirrored in Kilkenny, Dublin, Wexford, and all over the place. It's not a case that we can scoff and say we've achieved something. We just have to keep it going.
“But it would be nice in the next couple of years if a win like this one wasn't regarded as shock. That Westmeath were simply there as a hurling county to be reckoned with and the shock is taken out of the headlines.”
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