Pegasus’ recent victory in the EuroHockey Club Champion’s Trophy has raised the stakes with this weekend’s Electric Ireland women’s IHL winner having the added carrot of a first ever place in the elite tier of European club hockey.
Hermes are the only side yet to claim this title yet but four Club Championship wins between 2003 and 2008, including the final year of that format, shows immense pedigree.
And they have been the form team to date in the competition, blitzing the group stages with a perfect record, defeating both Leinster and Ulster champions en route.
They hope to welcome back set-piece specialist, Audrey O’Flynn, for their game with Railway Union after six weeks out with a broken jaw. Jenny Burke misses out on the weekend but the side are otherwise at full strength – their domestic league travails long dismissed since the return of their international half-dozen.
Lisa Jacob’s quartet of goals and the concession of just a pair past Emma Gray pin-points that influence while the quality is well-spread, with 14 of their named panel playing at senior interpro level or better.
Looking forward to the weekend, captain Christine Quinlan cannot wait for the opening whistle to come: “The IHL has been a target for us all season and now that we’ve overcome the first hurdle and qualified for the semi-finals, it’s getting really exciting.
“It was great to qualify top of a very tough group and while it has given the team a real boost, those results mean nothing now and it all comes down to this weekend.”
Railway stand in their way, bidding to over-turn last year’s 3-1 defeat to the same opposition at the same venue.
Kate Lloyd was rested for their trip to Armagh last weekend – a blistering 9-0 victory in the cup quarter-finals – offering a rest for exam and Irish U-18 training reasons.
She is included, though, in a panel of 20 players for the weekend which could be pushed to the limit as Isobel and Cecelia Joyce could have a dilemma should Railway make it into the final.
Both have been named in the Irish women’s cricket team who travel to England for county championship matches on Sunday – along with Glenanne duo Mary Waldron and Claire Shillington.
Coach Mick McKinnon felt his side clicked perfectly last time out and hopes that form can be continued with Zara Delany’s quadruple-strike bringing her total to 15 for the season for the free-scoring unionites.
In the other semi-final, Loreto have been building nicely to the finals weekend where they will face Pegasus.
Their 5-0 thrashing of Old Alex in the cup quarter-finals was a result they have been threatening for a while. They produced a particularly strong showing against Railway a fortnight earlier while getting a result in Ballymoney showed some grit.
And manager Peter Keegan summed up the mood, saying there is plenty of optimism around: “Having come through the qualifying group undefeated and finishing top, there is an expectation that this will be our year.
“However, we are aware of the strength in depth of the other three teams that make up these semi finals. This weekend we will see ladies hockey played at its highest level and we do hope that we can make a worthy contribution to the success of this great competition.”
Head coach Graham Shaw adds that his side feel they have something to prove this time around.
“The girls feel they left this competition behind them last season missing out on goal difference to make the semi finals to Hermes. This year we feel we are playing very well at the right time of the season and we look forward to playing against a strong Pegasus team, a team we have the upmost respect for.”
The additions of Orlagh O’Shea and Sarah Clarke, combined with the elevation of Jessica McGirr, Hayley Mulcahy, Ruth Murphy and Sarah Evans have bolstered their ranks.
Their star quality is peppered throughout the forward and midfield with Irish record caps holder Nikki Symmons, Niamh Small, Nicci Daly and Ali Meeke buzzing.
Breaking through against 2011 double winners Pegasus could depend on how available Arlene Boyles is following a leg injury. The Ulster champs were superb in their European campaign but have looked vulnerable since the former Irish captain found her availability limited.
A 3-1 loss to Hermes last time round almost spelt the end of their reign, only to receive a favour in Limerick, while an Irish Senior Cup elimination to Anna O’Flanagan’s late winner meant that one title is beyond their grasp.
Suzanne Beaney remains the country’s sharpest goalscorer and is well placed to retain that title, five to her name thus far, while Steph Quinn has been a superb addition in the past two seasons in centre midfield.
Electric Ireland women’s Irish Hockey League schedule:
Saturday, semi-finals: Hermes v Railway Union, 10.30am; Loreto v Pegasus, 12.30pm
Sunday, final: 1.30pm
** The Hook will be covering the tournament live on-site as well as on twitter.com/hookhockey throughout the weekend using the #ihlwomen hashtag. We also intend on posting video highlights on the site on Saturday and Sunday evening