1. Westmeath’s recent U21 hurling record
IT’S WORTH NOTING that as recently as 2012, Westmeath were competing in the second tier at U21 hurling level in Leinster. They didn’t even make the Leinster final that year, losing out against Kildare in the semi-final.
For the past three seasons, Westmeath have competed in the Bord Gáis Energy Leinster U21 hurling championship and rubbed shoulders with the big guns.
They’ve only won one of their four outings though, beating Carlow by 3-19 to 0-10 in 2014 before they were pipped by a point by Dublin in the semi-final that year. In 2013 and 2015, Westmeath lost their Leinster U21 hurling openers against Wexford and Offaly.
Kilkenny’s modern U21 hurling track record is not as eye-catching as you would expect for such a hurling powerhouse. But they were still Leinster champions in 2012 while they also contested provincial finals in 2013 and 2015.
Westmeath may not have a rich U21 hurling history but last night they managed to achieve the county’s most famous win in that grade.
2. Westmeath’s minor record didn’t suggest U21 glory
Of course, counties have been known to shine at U21 level after previously struggling at the corresponding minor grade. But it’s still worth noting just how Westmeath have fared in the past three minor championships, the levels that feed directly into the current U21 team.
In 2013, Westmeath lost the Leinster minor hurling opener against Meath by four points and in 2014, they were defeated at the first minor hurdle in Leinster by Kildare by the same margin.
Last year’s minor championship did offer signs of promise for Westmeath though. They defeated Wicklow, Carlow and – most significantly – Wexford in the Leinster arena before bowing out against Dublin at the semi-final stage.
Joe Rabbitte, Killian Doyle, Niall Mitchell, Darragh Egerton and Ciaran Doyle provided the crossover between the 2015 minor team and the 2016 U21 side.
But despite the 2015 minor progress, it was still a huge rate of improvement by Westmeath to claim such a major scalp in their 2016 U21 opener.
3. The quality of the Kilkenny team
The transition from minor to U21 can be tricky and there’s enough evidence to prove that minor wins are no guarantee of U21 success. Still the Kilkenny side that took to the field in Cusack Park last night had sufficient winning experience to suggest it would be an advantage.
Kilkenny have claimed the last three Leinster minor titles and were All-Ireland minor champions in 2014. From the U21 side that started last night in Mullingar, nine players had started in that minor triumph against Limerick two years ago and two more came on as substitutes.
The quality in that Limerick team is illustrated by the fact that eight Limerick hurlers from that game featured during the county’s All-Ireland U21 final win last September.
Away from the county scene, the famed Kilkenny hurling nursery of St Kieran’s have captured the last three Croke Cup titles. From last night’s Kilkenny U21 team, Jason Cleere, Liam Blanchfield, Sean Morrissey and Billy Ryan played some part in the 2014 and 2015 final wins while Conor Browne played in the 2014 decider.
It’s important to point out that Kilkenny were hampered by injuries to key players like James Maher – who made a senior breakthrough this spring – and 2014 All-Ireland minor winning midfielder Luke Scanlon.
But the career milestones achieved by the Kilkenny team that started provides further proof just how impressive this win was for Westmeath.
4. The odds of Westmeath causing an upset
How likely were the chances of Westmeath springing such a shock beforehand? Well, Paddy Power bookmakers had priced them at 14/1 to win this two-horse race before the game. During the contest, Westmeath drifted to an in-running price off 55/1 at one juncture.
Before the 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Leinster U21HC commenced last night, Westmeath were a 50/1 shot to win the title. Today they are third favourites at 4/1 after their seismic success.
5. The difference in hurling tradition
Consider the difference in hurling honours accumulated by Kilkenny and Westmeath. Between the senior, U21, intermediate/junior and minor grades, Kilkenny have won 80 All-Ireland crowns and 190 Leinster titles.
Westmeath have one All-Ireland junior championship win and three Leinster junior titles to their credit.
Did that have any relevance to last night’s game and this particular Westmeath team? It depends on your perspective as there is no metric for tradition.
But it still counts for something. The mere sight of the jersey of an aristocrat can have a debilitating effect on a weaker county trying to emerge.
Despite the vast gulf in hurling status between the counties, Westmeath overcame that to fashion a victory.
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‘I think it still reverberates throughout the whole team whenever someone gets a number five jersey’