Despite a highly spirited display, the Westmeath ladies lost out to Meath in this entertaining Leinster senior championship semi-final at The Downs last Sunday.
Following Westmeath's memorable All-Ireland intermediate championship triumph last year, there was keen interest in how the Lake ladies would cope with stepping up to the senior grade.
On the evidence of last Sunday's encounter, Westmeath are certainly not out of place in the senior ranks. Yet it was also a game which showed that mistakes and missed chances will be punished at this level.
As indicated by the scoreline, the two goals were the difference and the first one was a particularly sloppy one from Westmeath's perspective. That goal helped Meath into a 1-3 to 0-3 lead - a scoreline which, on the balance of play, was harsh on the home side.
Still, a shock win for Westmeath looked a genuine possibility until the visitors' second goal, scored in the 43rd minute by Mary Sheridan (whose brother Joe helped Meath to victory over Kildare later in the day). From that moment, the gradient facing Westmeath appeared too steep.
Westmeath enjoyed plenty of possession and created several scoring chances but lacked the clinical finishing to take advantage.
Meath were reduced to 14 players for the last ten minutes of normal time after centre-back Eileen Rahill was sin-binned. However, the goal that Westmeath needed just wouldn't come.
With sunshine making a welcome appearance, The Downs venue looked resplendent as this semi-final got underway. Meath had the better of the early exchanges, with Carole Finch and Aileen Martin required to defend diligently. But Westmeath opened the scoring (sixth minute) with Maud Annie Foley pointing a free, awarded for a foul on Laura Walsh.
Meath had moved their tall No. 10 Mary Sheridan to full-forward and she quickly made her presence felt at the edge of the square. In the eighth minute, Meath midfielder Fiona Mahon lobbed the ball goalwards and Christine Warburton came out of her goal to deal with the danger; but the Westmeath 'keeper was unsighted by Sheridan and the ball ended up in the net.
Sheridan then showed her fielding prowess from a Shauna Bennett delivery, but a combination of Warburton and the crossbar denied her a score. At the other end, good tackling among the Westmeath forwards eventually led to a free-in, with Foley doing the needful again.
Alan Mangan's charges were working ferociously hard all over the field but, with Meath full-back Aedin Murray doing some great work in her intriguing battle with Laura Walsh, the scores were not coming. Karen Hegarty appeared to have levelled the scores with the umpire raising the white flag, but referee Pat Keogh over-ruled the decision and signalled a wide. It seemed the correct call.
Paula Cunningham's side raised their first white flag in the 23rd minute, Katie O'Brien pointing a free. A minute later, Westmeath responded with a wonderful individual score by Athlone IT student Johanna Maher, who used her pace to slice through the Meath defence before firing over.
Towards the end of the half, Laura Walsh was harshly penalised for a perceived foul which ended a promising Westmeath attack and the Glasson native showed her displeasure at the decision.
Meath scored two points from frees in first-half injury time to give themselves a three-point lead at half-time. Bennett converted after Maher fouled Jenny Rispin, and then O'Brien guided the ball over after Jenny Rogers was harshly adjudged to have committed a foul.
Shortly after the restart, a spell of Westmeath pressure eventually led to a pointed free by Laura Walsh. Meath responded as two of their most influential players combined, Bennett setting up O'Brien for a point.
Tireless Westmeath midfielder Ruth Kearney must have covered every blade of grass on the field, though her passing occasionally let her down. However, the Milltown player showed her capabilities early in the second half by playing a terrific one-two with Walsh, and the ensuing passage of play saw Karen Hegarty fouled. The latter clipped over the free from close range to keep her side in touch, and Westmeath's spirit on the day was then exemplified by a fine block from Kelly Boyce Jordan.
Meath often left only left two players in their attack and Westmeath found it difficult to break down the blanket defence facing them. But Fiona Claffey showed how to overcome these tactics by landing an excellent long-range point, cutting Meath's lead to the minimum (42nd minute).
Just a minute later, however, Meath landed a killer blow when Sheridan fisted a Mahon cross to the net, the ball going in off the underside of the bar. O'Brien followed this up with a point, leaving the Royals 2-5 to 0-6 ahead. In the space of a minute, Meath had struck for 1-1.
Westmeath's hopes were again raised when Rahill was sin-binned for a cynical foul on Hegarty.
However, Meath were equipped to keep the maroon threat at bay in the closing stages. The diminutive Ciara Blundell pointed from close range, but impressive Meath substitute Laura Dempsey replied with a classy point.
Elaine Finn blasted over a point in the 59th minute to reduce Meath's lead to four points. Dempsey again eased the pressure with her second point.
As the contest moved into injury-time, Foley's underhit free hit the crossbar and, in the game's final moments, Christine Warburton made a fine fetch under pressure from Bennett's free.
Scorers - Meath: K. O'Brien 0-4 (2f); M. Sheridan and F. Mahon 1-0 each; L. Dempsey 0-2 ; S. Bennett 0-1f. Westmeath: M.A. Foley 0-2 (2f); F. Claffey, J. Maher, C. Blundell, E. Finn, L. Walsh (f) and K. Hegarty (f) 0-1 each.
Meath: Irene Munnelly; Orla Byrne, Aedin Murray, Orla Sheridan; Bridgetta Lynch, Eileen Rahill, Emma Troy; Shauna Bennett, Fiona Mahon; Mary Sheridan, Katie O'Brien, Vivienne McCormack; Jenny Rispin, Helen Regan, Kate Byrne. Subs: Laura Dempsey for Byrne (25); Michelle Peel for Rispin (inj., 45); Colleen Jordan for McCormack (50).
Westmeath: Christine Warburton; Aileen Martin, Carole Finch, Aoife Brady; Kelly Boyce Jordan, Jenny Rogers, Tara Fagan; Ruth Kearney, Maud Annie Foley; Johanna Maher, Elaine Finn, Fiona Claffey; Laura Walsh, Karen Hegarty, Ciara Blundell. Subs: Emma Morris for Blundell (55).
Referee: Pat Keogh (Carlow).