'You'd rather be playing in July than sitting at home looking at it on television'

Westmeath and Ger Egan are hoping to book a clash against the Dubs for a third consecutive year.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

A FULL FIVE weeks after the All-Ireland SFC campaign opened up in New York, the final three teams to enter the race for Sam Maguire do so today.

Kerry, Westmeath and Offaly start their summer campaigns this afternoon, with the midlands duo playing one another in Tullamore. The prize for the winners is a crack at the Dubs in the Leinster semi-final.

While Kerry and Westmeath featured in their respective league finals on the weekend of 8 and 9 April, Offaly just about survived relegation a week earlier with a thrilling win over Laois.

That made it 10 weeks in between competitive games for the Faithful County. No side in the country have been forced to wait as long in between competitive games in 2017.

In the past, Westmeath have hit the right pitch during the lengthy break in between league and championship to resurrect their seasons. Tom Cribbin’s men suffered back-to-back league demotions in 2015 and 2016, before making it to the Leinster final both years.

Ger Egan, who skippered his county to both provincial deciders, admits they face a different challenge this time around. Westmeath lifted the Division 4 crown with a 13-point hammering of Wexford in Croke Park to secure an immediate return to the third tier.

Ger Egan Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Taking the momentum of an unbeaten league campaign is unfamiliar territory for Cribbin’s squad.

“In the last couple of years we’ve been going down the ladder rather than up,” Egan told The42.

“So it’ll be a different challenge for us. Momentum? Maybe. It’s nice to get a bit of silverware, of course there’ll be confidence coming from it and hopefully we can bring it to the championship now.”

These sides met at the same stage last year when Westmeath edged through by a single point, before stunning Kildare to make the Leinster final.

As is often case when neighbouring counties collide in the championship, there are plenty of ties that bind Westmeath and Offaly.

Egan is a Tyrrellspass native but attended secondary school in the nearby Tullamore, where the sides will do battle later today.

“I’d know a good lot of the lads but it’s a local derby. That’ll bring its own intensity in itself. Especially after last year where we just got the nudge on them.

“I’m really looking forward to it. They are the games you want to be playing instead of going to a massive stadium with only a couple of seats filled. I’m really, really looking forward to it now.”

Pat Flanagan Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Offaly boss Flanagan managed Westmeath for three years at the beginning of this decade, leading them to promotion to Division 1 in his final season in 2013. Cribbin, meanwhile, was in charge of Offaly between 2009 and 2011.

“The passion he shows for Westmeath is unbelievable. He just wants to get the best out of us and players love to see that from a manager. If you love to play for your manager, that’s half of his job done.

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“The results kind of speak for themselves, especially in championship. He’s done well in there and hopefully we can keep that going.”

Westmeath have laid claim to an undisputed ranking as the second best team in the province since 2015, but they lost to Jim Gavin’s all-conquering Dublin by 13 points in 2015 and 15 points last July.

Still, Egan explains the possibility of setting up a clash against the All-Ireland champions remains as big an incentive as ever.

“You want to be going out there and playing Dublin. I know they put us to the sword in the last two finals but it’s better to be there than not to be there.

“We’ve shown that we’ve been the second best team in Leinster. What good is that? You want to go and try and win something. It’s great to be there.

“We’ve had a good lot of games in Croke Park the last couple of years and you’d rather be playing in July than sitting at home looking at it on television.”

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