A strong second half saw the Kilkenny under-21 hurlers reach the Leinster final, but the Cats’ nerve was certainly tested by Westmeath.
The boys from the Lake County proved to be a stubborn opponent as they fought and harried all the way, but it was Kilkenny’s reserve of energy that paid off as they scorched past their rivals in Cusack Park.
Kilkenny made a solid start, bustling their way into an early lead thanks to points from Sean Morrissey, Alan Murphy (free) and Liam Blanchfield.
Westmeath rallied, but a spell of wides in quick succession raised their frustration levels. They kept plugging away, inching closer to their rivals with scores from the impressive Killian Doyle (0-2), then stunned the Cats when James Goonery crashed the sliotar to the net, pouncing to snap up the rebound after Kilkenny ’keeper Darren Brennan did well to stop Shane Clavin’s 19th minute shot (1-4 to 0-5).
Kilkenny were rattled by that goal, but responded in style. Pat Lyng fought his way into space on the left, battling through a series of challenges to squeeze the sliotar over the bar from the tightest of angles. They were back on level terms when Alan Murphy put over another free late on, but Westmeath edged their noses in front when Killian Doyle converted an injury-time free. They should have been much further in front, but were guilty of too many wides in that opening half (1-7 to 0-9).
It was a different Kilkenny who took the field for the second half. The addition of Richie Leahy and Darren Mullen added stability and a threat to the side. They kicked on, edging their way in front by the 41st minute with another Murphy free, but two top class saves from Sean Maher kept Westmeath in the game.
The netminder did well to smother a stinging Liam Blanchfield shot, then did even better to deny Alan Murphy from close range.
The saves were a sign of what was to come in the final quarter, however, as Kilkenny upped the ante and surged on. They took control of the scoreboard after that, moving further away with fine points from John Donnelly, Leahy and Eoin Kenny. A late flurry from Alan Murphy, who converted two frees and then smashed home a fine goal, saw the Cats advance to a Leinster final with Wexford.
SCORERS: Kilkenny – Alan Murphy (1-8, 0-7 frees, 0-1 65); John Donnelly, Sean Morrissey (0-3 each); Pat Lyng, Richie Leahy (0-2); Luke Scanlon, Liam Blanchfield, Eoin Kenny (0-1 each). Westmeath – Killian Doyle (0-8, 0-6 frees); James Goonery (1-0); Niall Mitchell (0-3).