Westmeath senior hurling manager, Shane O’Brien: “We’re very fortunate to be getting games but there was never going to be the ideal scenario where you were going to get the four group games, because time is against us. It’s important that the clubs get their window as well at the right time of the year.” PHOTO: RAY RYAN

‘There’s a great buzz in the Westmeath camp’ — O’Brien

“We’re very fortunate to be getting games.”

Those words from Westmeath senior hurling manager, Shane O’Brien, will be echoed throughout Ireland in the days ahead by a range of players, backroom personnel and scribes – if not by unfortunate fans who must rely on technology to keep up to speed with their respective heroes’ endeavours – as the National Hurling League resumes this weekend.

From a Lake County viewpoint, the task facing the squad is truly formidable over the next six weeks, as five of the strongest small ball exponents in the land are lined up in reverse fixtures from 2020, all of which Westmeath lost.

In truth, home advantage is somewhat negligible with supporters still not permitted to attend, but TEG Cusack Park will still be a more familiar terrain for O’Brien’s troops who start off tomorrow (Saturday) with the visit of Galway (throw-in 2pm).

However, the Dubliner is upbeat about the truncated season ahead. He stated: “Like every other county, we’ve done a lot of Zoom work. The lads were given individual programmes since January and they have worked extremely hard individually.

“To be fair, they came back in very good shape. We were delighted to get back on April 20 and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the buzz around the place. Management and players alike – everybody was just so excited.

“When you’ve been without something that you love for so long, it makes you appreciate what you have when you’re back at it. We have an awareness of how lucky we are. We are training in Raharney. They have outstanding pitches and facilities in Joristown. Sean Greville and the lads there have been so good to us.”

Westmeath Gaels will be delighted to hear that the team’s scorer-in-chief in recent years, Raharney’s Killian Doyle, is back home after a brief stint in the UK. O’Brien clarified: “Killian is still a little bit away from full fitness but we know his quality, and he is putting in a huge effort in training.”

The paperwork for the transfer of Davy Glennon from one maroon and white-clad outfit to the other has now been finalised and the Galway man, a Liam MacCarthy Cup winning panellist just four years ago, is available for selection against his native county.

However, there was mixed news in relation to Castletown-Geoghegan’s marquee duo, Niall O’Brien and Aonghus Clarke. The former is back in the fold again after returning from an overseas work stint last year, while Clarke has been travelling and is trying to regain match sharpness since his return. “He has been training meticulously,” his manager stated.

New faces in the Westmeath panel are Oisín Dowdall (Clonkill) and the Cullion duo of Jack Gillen and Kevin Regan. The backroom team is virtually unchanged, but O’Brien pointed out “our new strength and conditioning man is Brendan Egan”, who lives not far from Westmeath in Ballinasloe.

When asked whether there were any injuries in the Westmeath camp, O’Brien’s immediate response was worrying: “How long have you got?” He expanded as follows: “Daragh Egerton is out and he’s a colossal loss. So are Niall Mitchell and Cormac Boyle, who is our captain this year and is a huge loss.

“Shane Clavin is on the way back after a long spell out and is not too far away now. Also, Adam Ennis, Conor Kane, who is out for the season, and Johnny Bermingham. We’ll be down quite a few for the Galway game.”

With Boyle out of contention, the bainisteoir announced that Lough Lene Gaels veteran Derek McNicholas would be the skipper on Saturday. “He is in flying form,” O’Brien added.

However, despite this lengthy list of absentees for a variety of reasons, the manager stated: “There is such a positive vibe in the camp. Everybody is really looking forward to the challenges ahead. We’re very excited about these Division 1 games. We finished our league campaign so positively last year and it was the same in the Joe McDonagh Cup, but ultimately it was a disappointing campaign as Covid restricted us. I hope we get a bit of luck this year.”

In relation to the upcoming second tier championship, an abbreviated version of previous years, O’Brien concluded: “The Joe McDonagh Cup is effectively a knockout championship. Carlow away (on the first weekend in July) is not ideal and it is a big task, but we are taking it one competition at a time. If we can consolidate our Division 1 status like we did last year, it would be great.

“We’re very fortunate to be getting games but there was never going to be the ideal scenario where you were going to get the four group games, because time is against us. It’s important that the clubs get their window as well at the right time of the year.”

Westmeath also opened their league campaign against the Tribesmen in 2020, the secondary competition getting under way at the ‘normal’ time slot of January 26 in Salthill. The home team won comprehensively by 1-24 to 0-10.

– Gerry Buckley

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