Darren Smith’s coaching rein takes its first venture into the competitive realm this afternoon when they play a friendly tie against Spain in Valencia.
The new international coach has been working with the side for the past five days on the training ground and now gets to see his new charges in action.
Ireland moved ahead of the Spanish in the most recent rankings by virtue of the Iberian sides’ decision to withdraw from the Champions Challenge I due to financial concerns.
As such, the last meeting between the sides was in Antwerp last March when Ireland produced a smash and grab victory in the Olympic qualifiers, eliminating Spain from the Games.
Both sides will go into the World League round two as the clear favourites to take the top-two spots when the competition-proper comes around, drawn in a five-team pool that also features the Czech Republic, Italy and Belarus.
The absence of the internationals could have a critical impact on the title race with UCD looking the most vulnerable. The wholesale absentees at the start of the campaign saw them gain just two points from their first three games, drawing with Pembroke and Corinthian.
Since then, they have been truly irresistible, smashing Pegasus in the Irish Senior Cup while winning nine successive league games. A lot of their impetus will need to come from the likes of Sarah Greene and Irish University players Hannah de Burgh Whyte and Caroline Hill up front.
They face a Loreto side shy Niamh Small, too, but they still have plenty of know-how throughout their team and the motivation that victory will lift them above the students. They did beat Trinity in the colours game on Tuesday, providing a decent workout.
Railway also stand to benefit from any lost points for UCD – especially a week ahead of their vital showdown with the Belfielders – with Jean McDonnell leading the line in the absence of Emma Smyth and Alex Speers.
McDonnell netted three times in a Monday night win over North Kildare, as did rising star Sarah Hawkshaw in a 6-1 win that lifted them back into a share of the lead. Next on the agenda is a Sandymount derby against Pembroke.
At the bottom, Glenanne and Trinity meet at St Mark’s in a game critical to both side’s ambitions of escaping the bottom rung in the division and the playoff game. Corinthian’s young stars, meanwhile, have their eye on an upset against Hermes at Whitechurch Park.
In division two, meanwhile, Genesis have the chance to strengthen their place as the leading contender to claim the promotion playoff spot following a run of six games unbeaten, leap-frogging Three Rock Ladies as the top first team. They meet Trinity II at Wesley.
Elsewhere, the Irish Hockey Trophy has reached the third round stage with Botanic, Bray, Muckross, Avoca and YMCA holding up the Leinster end in the last 16.
Women’s International Friendlies (all in Valencia)
Friday, February 8: Spain vs Ireland, 3pm
Saturday, February 9: Spain vs Ireland, 3pm
Women’s Leinster Division One (Saturday): Pembroke vs Railway Union, 11am, Serpentine Avenue; North Kildare vs Old Alex, 12.15pm, The Maws; Glenanne vs Trinity, 1pm, St Mark’s; Corinthian vs Hermes, 2.15pm, Whitechurch Park; Loreto vs UCD, 4.30pm, Beaufort
Saturday: Trinity vs Genesis, 2.45pm, Wesley College
Monday: Pembroke vs Newbridge, 8.15pm, Serpentine Avenue
Electric Ireland Irish Hockey Trophy, round three: Botanic vs NICS, 1pm, Glasnevin; NUIG vs Grosvenor, 1pm, NUIG; Bandon vs Belfast Harlequins, 1.30pm, Bandon GS; Bray vs Cork C of I, 1.30pm, Loreto Bray; UL vs Muckross, 2pm, UL; Avoca vs Lisnagarvey, 2.15pm, Newpark; Omagh vs Ballyclare, 2.30pm, Campsie; Greenfields vs YMCA, 3pm, Dangan