Pressure is on Westmeath from the start, warns Ryan
As the Allianz Hurling League prepares for the showpiece clash between Galway and Tipperary, the launch of the 2017 All-Ireland Championships is going largely unnoticed outside the four counties which begin their campaigns next Sunday.
"Lose your first two games and you're out so the pressure is on straight away," said Westmeath manager Michael Ryan, whose side take on Laois in the Leinster round-robin in Portlaoise. Meath and Kerry meet in the other game in Páirc Tailteann.
The top two after the three-round series will qualify for the quarter-finals, where they will meet Offaly and Wexford respectively, with the pairings decided when the round-robin concludes on May 14.
Westmeath, who reached the quarter-finals in each of the last two years, head into the Championship off a less successful League than last season, having finished fourth behind Carlow, Antrim and Kildare in Division 2A.
Laois finished bottom of 1B, winning only one of five games, but survived in the group by beating Kerry in a relegation play-off.
Meath, last year's Christy Ring Cup champions, took the 2B title after winning all six games, leaving them with a very positive mindset on their return to the Leinster Championship for the first time since 2004.
Ryan led Westmeath to five wins from six round-robin games in the last two years, but knows they have ground to make up after a mixed League campaign.
"We were short some players early on and didn't start the League very well, but we got better as it went on and would hope to improve again for the Championship," he said.
"We'll need to if we are to get anything out of the game with Laois.
"They beat Offaly and ran Wexford to four points. The other games didn't go as well for them but they were still playing at a higher level than us."
Westmeath's form improved after early defeats by Carlow and Kildare and they finished off by beating Antrim, who were later promoted to 1B.
Ryan believes that the livelier surfaces will suit his young team and, with home games to come against Kerry and Meath in Mullingar, he is hopeful of reaching the quarter-finals. Otherwise, their season will be over by May 14, a fate that will apply to two of the four round-robin counties.
"It's not what any of us wants but that's the system so we have to get on with it. We all have three games so it's a fair test to see who makes the quarter-finals. Every point will be vital," he said.