After five months of domestic competition, the Irish Hockey League returns on Saturday with most of Leinster’s men’s entrants in the chasers roles after Ulster sides shaded the first three rounds of competition.
But tight margins in both pools mean victories in the penultimate rounds of preliminaries will make or break campaigns, none more so – from a Leinster perspective – at Milltown where YMCA face Pembroke in Pool B
Just one point covers second to fifth with YM, with their liking for bonus points, currently occupying second despite just one win in the campaign. Two more wins for any of the top five will almost definitely ensure progression.
Nonetheless, they enter the tie with reasons to be positive, especially with key players Andy Walker and David Robinson recuperating in time to provide the guile for their elusive forward line.
Victory in a recent league tie at the same venue – the Y leading Pembroke 3-0 before a second half comeback – was slightly tempered by the purples Mills Cup final involvement the next day, perhaps keeping their powder dry.
But the injury pendulum continues to wreak havoc at Serpentine Avenue with Keith Crawford done for the season with a fractured ankle sustained in that cup win, adding to Alan Giles, Alan Sothern and Ronan Flannery’s absence.
Top of Pool B by three points, Lisnagarvey can potentially qualify for the final four for a third successive year should they get the better of an emerging Annadale. The youthful Lough Moss side have used a transitional season to good effect with final day victory at Banbridge in the Ulster Premier sealing guaranteed IHL hockey in 2012/13.
Chief in achieving that status was a 4-2 win at the Comber Road and a repeat would really throw the cat among the pigeons. If not, Cork C of I look like the side in the best position to prosper. They host Three Rock Rovers hoping for more of the form which accounted for city rivals Harlequins three weekends ago in the Munster league.
They will likely have to contend with the absence of Andrew Daunt who was injured in Munster’s U-21 interprovincial campaign last weekend.
But Rovers are a side shy on players, too, missing Irish striker Peter Blakeney and underage international Ross Canning though Jody Hosking enjoyed his last outing at Garryduff in the Irish Junior Cup last term with a pair and he makes his IHL debut. Former Munster underage interpro Craig Moore is fighting for fitness, too.
In Pool A, it looks a three-horse race between Monkstown and this season’s EHL representatives, Cookstown and Banbridge, for the semi-final berths though Cork Harlequins and Glenanne will have their say.
Indeed, for Monkstown, it is a make or break trip to recent Leinster league tormentors as their progressive season has fallen agonisingly short in two competitions in the last fortnight.
Rumours are suggesting Brian Groves could make a surprise return, coming out of retirement to offer another forward option in the absence of injured trio Kyle Good, Gareth Watkins and Robbie McFarlane – carried off in the cup final with seconds to go of extra-time. The Glens are virtually eliminated but if any team knows who to reel in a four-point deficit in two games, they are the club to do it.
Recently crowned Ulster champs Cookstown are currently top with nine points hit the road to Cork to take on a Harlequins’ side in the last chance saloon. The all Ulster affair between Banbridge and basement side Instonians face off in an evening tie.
For the first time this season, Instonians will have a full squad available meaning that former Ireland captain Patrick Brown and current Irish International Paul Gleghorne will both play in defence.
Player-coach Mark Irwin is currently in good scoring form will lead the attack, duly backed up by prolific goal scorer William Robinson. But Bann are in the box seat at Havelock Park, second in the pool rankings, with Drew Carlisle closing in on an Irish cap, a top showing in the revamped Anderson Cup in midweek, and Ross McCandless whipping in the goals.
Domestically, its judgement day for UCD on Sunday at Serpentine Avenue as they take on Suttonians in the division one/two promotion/relegation playoff tie while Avoca have a double in their sights as they meet Weston in the Neville Davin final.
Corinthian lead Leinster’s charge on Sunday in the Irish Junior, playing reigning champs Lisnagarvey in a competition again dominated by Ulster sides.
In Munster, meanwhile, UCC can move closer to becoming the final side to confirm their place in the IHL wildcard playoffs – joining YMCA and Instonians – should they beat Catholic Institute.
Fixtures (all Saturday unless stated)
Irish Hockey League
Pool A: Banbridge v Instonians, 6pm, Havelock Park; Cork Harlequins v Cookstown, 1pm, Farmer’s Cross; Glenanne v Monkstown, 3pm, St Mark’s
Pool B: Cork C of I v Three Rock Rovers, 2.30pm, Garryduff; Lisnagarvey v Annadale, 4pm, Comber Road; YMCA v Pembroke Wanderers, 1.30pm, Milltown
Men’s Leinster Division One/Two playoff (Sunday): UCD v Suttonians, 4pm, Serpentine Avenue
Neville Davin Cup final: Weston v Avoca, 1pm, Serpentine Avenue
Inter Cup final: Fingal III vs TRR IV, 3pm, Serpentine Avenue
Irish Junior Cup (Sunday): Cookstown v Banbridge, 3pm, Coolnafranky; Corinthian v Lisnagarvey, 1pm, Whitechurch Park