Aonghus Clarke has high hopes for Westmeath hurling
By Kevin Egan
On paper it’s a local derby, but in truth it’s not really. Westmeath and Offaly share a 40-mile long border, one of the longest “frontiers” among any two Leinster counties, but either side of that line is very much football country. When these two tribes go to war in the big ball code, it’s the only event that matters anywhere from Kinnegad to Athlone, or from Edenderry to Doon.
Both of these counties have their hurling pockets, albeit with Westmeath’s a lot more clearly defined than Offaly’s in recent years, but those territories are well away from this border, and so there isn’t the same significance of history and tradition on the table when the counties clash as there might be when Westmeath take on Meath, or when Offaly hurl against Laois.
Westmeath captain Aonghus Clarke is certainly unperturbed by history, as his focus is all on the future of the sport in his native county. For now, his targets are clear – to go one step further than they did in 2018, when Carlow edged past them in the final of the Joe McDonagh Cup.
The Dolmen County have gone on to achieve great things this year, but Clarke is phlegmatic on the topic of their good fortunes, accepting that their conquerors of last Summer are just that bit further on in their development right now.
“We beat them in the league in the first game but they beat us in the two finals” recalls the Castletown Geoghegan man,
“If you were to look back, they were better than us in the two finals. Now, I think that we could get to their level but they were better than us in the two games so you couldn’t really say ‘we should be there instead of them’”.
He says that while his county will expend every ounce of energy that they have into winning this year’s Joe McDonagh Cup, for him the important target is to ensure that when they do make the step up to the next level, that they are able to sustain that.
“When I finish playing I’d love Westmeath to be in division one and in the Liam McCarthy on a consistent basis. Once you’re in those competitions there’s TV coverage, everyone knows about it and that feeds into younger lads wanting to play, so there’s more potential for Westmeath to have better underage and then better senior teams”.
“From our point of view we want to leave it where there is something proper to build on. I realise that I’m not going to play forever but I don’t want to leave off worse than when we started”.
Already however, Clarke has been at the forefront of one change in Westmeath hurling – that of mindset. He was part of a Westmeath minor team in 2011 that beat Offaly, Laois and Carlow, ran Kilkenny close and then bowed out against Dublin at Parnell Park when a late Oisín O'Rorke goal gave the boys in blue a slightly-flattering six-point winning margin.
Chris Crummy, Ciaran Kilkenny, Emmett Ó Conghaíle and Cormac Costello were just some of the players on duty for Dublin that day, and while the result wasn’t what he craved, Clarke maintains that for him, and for the next generation a couple of seasons after him who played and beat Kilkenny at U-21 level, that underage track record has completely changed their sense of belief and potential.
“When we came up against Offaly a few years ago and hammered them, and we beat Laois last year, it wasn’t a great surprise for us because we had beaten them at underage. For supporters who might be a bit older they mightn’t have seen it coming and they’d be thinking ‘this is a great achievement’. We’d have already broken it down mentally that ‘yeah we can win this’, we had that mental block broken down from underage”.
Saturday’s team will draw heavily from those two generations, with as many as a dozen starters potentially to come from players that are now in their mid-twenties. However Clarke wants to see more coming on board consistently, rather than all of Westmeath’s eggs getting put into that one basket.
“We had a very good underage team. We came into the senior set up and our age group nearly took over. When we were only 21 there were maybe eight or 10 starters that were 21 years of age and that was only few years ago. So that team is together still and we still have the few older ones too. Then the next few lads that came from the team that beat Kilkenny was Killian and Ciaran (Doyle), Niall (Mitchell) and Liam (Varley). We’ve no U-20’s on the panel this year but that U-20 team is quite good, they’ll do well this year. I’d be hoping we’d get a few lads out of them, though there’s no-one in with us now”.
“I think it’s important to get one or two lads every year rather than waiting on a group. With the group, there’s huge expectation on them and what if one or two lads go abroad or something, you’re in trouble then”.
The sense of positivity and optimism about the future of Westmeath hurling comes through in everything he says, but he accepts that while he wants their long term future to be played out at the top level, they have to earn their way there, and while some other commentators from Joe McDonagh counties have asked for a different system, Clarke is happy with the structure and just wants to play his way into the Leinster senior championship.
“I think the tiered system is good to be honest. We’re going to play four or five games and you couldn’t say who is going to win any of them, they’ll all be competitive games. The important thing for us is that there is a system there for us to go up if we are good enough. We can play in the Liam McCarthy this year if we get to the final and we can be in the Liam McCarthy proper if we win it. We’re at our level, and we know we are, but if we improve we know that we can get to that other level."
So would he advocate a tiered system to his footballing friends in places like Westmeath?
“The gap is less in football than it is in hurling, overall, I think you need to view the two separately. You can’t just say ‘well the tiered system is good for hurling so it’s good for football’. There’s a different dynamic in the two and there’s a different culture. You can’t be crosslinking the two. They both have different fan base and following, they both have to be viewed independently. But there’s definitely something in it".
Never hung up on tradition, always looking forward.