“I’m not sure why they dropped Nicky Rackard – sure he hasn’t played in the last 16 years!”
These words were uttered by a friend of mine with trademark wit when the Hurling Team of the Millennium was announced some 18 years ago. Indeed, the Wexford maestro was eight years deceased (at the very young age of 53) by the time the GAA’s centenary had arrived in 1984 and was deemed to be a shoe-in at full forward on the Hurling Team of the Century. Remarkably, Cork’s Ray Cummins replaced the legendary Slaneysider when ‘another’ best-ever side was named to tie in with the calendar millennium in 2000 (as above).
The truly remarkable Christy Ring, unsurprisingly, made both teams and it was entirely fitting that the All-Ireland ‘B’ competition was renamed in honour of the Cloyne genius back in 2005. A dedicated Raharney player to this day, John Shaw had the signal honour of being the first man to lift the Christy Ring Cup in Croke Park on August 14, 2005 when Westmeath memorably defeated Down. Further victories followed in both 2007 and 2010, albeit those years were not nearly as sweet as the first victory. They simply meant that Westmeath were not good enough to compete in the Leinster championship proper, in addition to which winning the secondary final ended the season without the opportunity to play a ‘big gun’.
One could argue that poor Christy Ring has been demoted/dropped ‘off the pitch’ in ways this year as the Joe McDonagh Cup is now just the second tier competition by another name. However, its staging as the curtain-raiser to the Leinster final between Kilkenny and Galway undoubtedly gives it added prestige. In addition, of course, both finalists are now guaranteed entry into the race for the Liam McCarthy Cup with the ‘big guns’, with Limerick and Wexford waiting in the wings for preliminary quarter-final clashes against next Sunday’s finalists. Also, the first recipients of Corn Seosamh Mhic Dhonnacha (to give it its official name) as of approximately 3.30pm next Sunday will replace Offaly in next year’s Leinster championship. Accordingly, rare silverware apart, the prize for the winners is immense.
The original All-Ireland ‘B’ competition was launched in 1974 with Westmeath defeating Down before losing to champions-elect Kildare. The late great Mickey Fagan lifted the trophy the following year, and further successes ensued in 1984 and 1991, in each case followed by All-Ireland quarter-final losses to Galway (twice) and Antrim.
Carlow consistently operate pretty much at the same level as Westmeath and they too won the Christy Ring Cup on three occasions – 2008 (winning a humdinger in O’Connor Park against Westmeath), 2009 and 2017. Their only All-Ireland ‘B’ success came in 1992, defeating London in the overall decider after edging home in a pulsating two-game saga in Tullamore after a ‘home’ final and replay against Westmeath. So, in a nutshell, the Barrowsiders have triumphed in the brace of tier two finals against their maroon and white-clad opponents. Michael Ryan will certainly not want Colm Bonnar to achieve a tier two final hat-trick in Jones’ Road in five days’ time.
All logic suggests that there will be very little between the teams next Sunday. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but Sunday’s fourth competitive contest between the teams this year – one win each in the league, and Carlow winning the championship encounter – will certainly ensure that both managements will have their homework done on their respective opponents. The Westmeath squad trained in Abbotstown last Saturday (where one of the playing pitches has the exact dimensions of Croke Park) and they also had a look around the ‘real’ Croke Park as part of their Dublin adventure. With one possible exception, it seems that the camp is injury-free, albeit the absence of the US-domiciled duo of Killian Doyle and Gary Greville certainly weakens Westmeath’s chances. In fairness, Marty Kavanagh is a massive loss to the men in green, red and yellow.
Carlow’s heroic year in football has generated great interest in Gaelic games in the county. Conversely, this scribe is struggling to remember comparable apathy towards the big ball game in my beloved county. One can only hope that the hurling fraternity travel in large numbers to Croke Park as support will be crucial if Tommy ‘Jogger’ Doyle is to walk up the steps of the Hogan Stand and be the proud recipient of the cup dedicated to the memory of a supremely able and charismatic late GAA president.
A county holds its breath.
Westmeath vs Carlow, 17 previous meetings in SHC
A win for Westmeath on Sunday would neatly even up the championship record between the two counties, which currently stands at eight wins to seven in Carlow’s favour, with two matches drawn.
L = Leinster championship; B = All-Ireland ‘B’ championship; CR = Christy Ring Cup; JMcD = Joe McDonagh Cup.
12/5/1963, Portlaoise, Carlow 3-8 Westmeath 2-3 (L)
7/6/1964, Portlaoise, Carlow 2-9 Westmeath 1-9 (L)
23/6/1991, Croke Park, Westmeath 3-10 Carlow 0-12 (B)
20/6/1992, Tullamore, Carlow 1-14 Westmeath 4-5 (draw) (B)
27/6/1992 Tullamore, Carlow 3-13 Westmeath 0-17 (replay) (B)
14/5/1995, Carlow, Westmeath 6-6 Carlow 3-14 (L)
5/5/1996, Castletown-Geoghegan, Westmeath 2-12 Carlow 1-15 (draw) (L)
19/5/1996, Carlow, Westmeath 3-7 Carlow 2-8 (replay) (L)
23/5/2000, Cusack Park, Carlow 3-11 Westmeath 2-11 (L)
15/4/2001, Carlow, Carlow 2-13 Westmeath 0-14 (L)
21/7/2007, Tullamore, Westmeath 4-11 Carlow 2-15 (CR)
3/8/2008, Tullamore, Carlow 3-22 Westmeath 4-16 (CR)
22/5/2011, Carlow, Westmeath 4-10 Carlow 1-14 (L)
18/5/2014, Carlow, Carlow 0-14 Westmeath 1-9 (L)
3/5/2015, Cusack Park, Westmeath 2-19 Carlow 2-17 (L)
22/5/2016, Carlow, Westmeath 0-22 Carlow 2-15 (L)
9/6/2018, Carlow, Carlow 3-21 Westmeath 1-21 (JMcD)
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