By Pierce O’Reilly
Lucky Limerick were coasting to victory in this bizarre New York hurling final at sunny Gaelic Park on Sunday. The Munster men had aces all over the field and racked up a wonderful 2-10 in the opening period. Westmeath were pedestrian and lackluster.
Robbed of their star performer, Jonathon O’Callaghan, because of immigration problems, Westmeath nevertheless went down fighting. O’Callaghan hit 0-5 for the Cork intermediates in the All-Ireland hurling semifinal in Ireland on Saturday evening then was stopped by immigration and refused entry on Sunday morning. Westmeath manager Tom Nugent couldn’t believe his bad luck. It probably cost the Midlanders the game.
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Limerick burst out of the traps and had one hand on the new Michael Flannery Memorial Cup before Westmeath settled. Powerful Pat Sexton, David Keane and Galway senior Fergal Healy all hit early points. Then up stepped Eoin O’Neill to burst the Westmeath net. The Limerick all-star tortured Darren McCormack at corner back. Swiveling on the diamond, O’Neill skinned McCormack for a mighty opening goal after 15 minutes. A David Cuddy free was all that Westmeath could muster at this stage.
Leading by 1-4 to 0-1, Nugent shuffled his hand. Brian McCabe drove forward at will and when the sliotar fell kindly for Lorcan Coll, he buried it below the helpless Dave Simms in the Limerick goal. Westmeath awoke. A minute later, mighty Martin Finn had goal No. 2. Coll again was the instigator. When the big Leinster man drove forward, the Limerick corner backs — Clement Smith and Seamus Howard — had no other option but to drag him to the ground. Finn sent the resultant penalty to the roof of the net with aplomb, making 1-6 to 2-1.
Limerick had other matters on their mind. Four individual points from play from Eoin O’Neill, Tom Simms, Brendan Cagney and a beauty from Fergal Healy stung Nugent’s men again. Finn hit back with a free, but his side lacked scoring options without O’Callaghan. At halftime, Limerick were in the driver’s seat, 2-10 to 2-3.
The second half would be all Limerick, or so we thought. It wasn’t. The Munster men started once again at lightning pace and had the gap up to nine points before Westmeath had located their opponents. A point and a goal from O’Neill and a great score from Sexton should have sent Westmeath packing. O’Neill was deadly when in possession. Pace, power and precision. Limerick were home and dry.
But not just yet. Nugent once again waved the magic wound and the rabbits jumped out of his hat. Darren McCormack moved out to midfield, McCabe covered in his absence, while Peter Dalton, Barry Smith and Ristard Brennan bolted the door at the back. When McCormack burst through the middle to score a majestic goal, Westmeath rallied again. Points from Martin Finn, Cuddy (2), Coll and Brennan had the Leinster men back in contention with 10 minutes to play. Limerick froze. When Laois senior David Cuddy goaled with 5 to go, Westmeath were only one point in arrears. Tom Simms hit back for Limerick, but for once they couldn’t penetrate the brave Westmeath defenders. Fergal Healy pointed from play to push the Munster men back in front, but the tide was gradually turning in favor of Westmeath. Barry Smith, Cuddy and a real peach from Ristard Brennan leveled the game with one minute to play. The crowd erupted on the bleachers. Brilliant stuff.
Both sides dug deep for the winner. Westmeath were defiant in defense, their attack worked to the bone. Limerick had the class, however, and when Man of the Match Tom Simms struck a point with 23 seconds to play, it sealed their victory and Westmeath’s fate.
The Simms brothers were outstanding. Dave Simms went from attack to the back to bail out his team mates. In the absence of Finbar Flood, he worked wonders between the sticks for Limerick.
Tom Simms played a captain’s role, while Pat Sexton was the hurling find of the year. Brendan Cagney, Fergal Healy and Eoin O’Neill also played their hearts out. Westmeath went down fighting.
What if O’Callaghan had caught the plane? Nugent will be left wondering and worrying for another while. His side did him proud and they deserve great credit for not buckling when in arrears. Dave Cuddy, Lorcan Coll and Martin Finn were the main predators, Nugent won’t be sending any Christmas cards to the INS this winter. You can’t blame him.
Limerick: Dave Simms, Seamus Howard, Clement Smith, John Riordan, Donal Fitzgibbon, Taghd O’Callaghan 0-1, Tom Simms 0-3, Fergal Healy 0-3, John Maher, Pat Sexton 0-3, Dave Keane 0-1, Eoin O’Neill 2-4, Brendan Cagney 1-0.
Westmeath: Darren Fitzpatrick, Barry Smith 0-1, Darren McCormack 1-0, Peter Dalton, Brian McCabe, Collie Reilly, Ristard Brennan 0-2, Alan Barry, David Cuddy 1-4, Paddy Corcoran, Brain McCarry, Lorcan Coll 1-1, Martin Finn 1-3.