Gruelling wildcard playoffs on the agenda as Alex aim to land final space

The Irish Hockey League wildcard playoffs looks set to be a fraught affair for Old Alex this weekend with just one place left in the 2014/15 competition with four teams vying for it.

If the Leinster side are to grab it, they must win at the Ulster Elks on Saturday before taking it easy at their club dinner before lining out on home turf on Sunday against either Catholic Institute or NUIG.

Old Alex's Shirley McCay will be a key figure Pic: Adrian Boehm

Old Alex’s Shirley McCay will be a key figure Pic: Adrian Boehm

The initial challenge is set to be a tight one, not least because Alex’s games scarcely have too many goals in the difference but they will be encouraged by their 5-1 win in Ballymoney, Ulster’s third place finishers. A 5-1 win up there in March was the highest goals in a game they managed to score since September.

Siobhan Scott Nielson has been a decent source since arriving in Ireland while the side’s strength lies in their spine of Pam Smithwick in goals, Shirley McCay in the engine room. Sarah Canning missed round five of the IHL through injury but will aim to be back in the side, joining Rachel and Laura Gray in the back line.

The Elks have had a tough second half of the season in the Ulster Premier League after looking like a potential title challenger midseason. But just one win in the last seven games saw their campaign taper off rapidly to finish 23 points off the pace.

They have plenty of quality, though, with Canada’s most capped player Steph Jameson along with Michelle Weber in their ranks while Kirstie Lammey is a key force up front.

Insta are the favourites to advance in Limerick against NUIG having defeated Connacht rivals Greenfields 3-1 last month but they have endured some heavy defeats of late which will give the students cause for optimism.

On the men’s side, Annadale play Cork Harlequins on Sunday in Milltown in a tie that will see one side confirm their ever-present place in the competition while the other will endure a first season outside the national elite.

Neither won in their respective IHL groups but Andy Smyth’s Dale can take much more from their pool, drawing with Corinthian and pushing Cork C of I close. Michael Robson is emerging as their pivot and returns to the side after the Ireland trip to England.

Quins, meanwhile, are vastly more experienced but have suffered a torrid time in the IHL and dropped out of the top two in Munster for the first time in many decades. They look to the likes of the Hobbs and Lombards for their vital moments while Julian Dale is the youthful option up front.

Six IHA finals will be played out at Belfield with the Leinster interest focussed mostly on the Irish Junior Cup finals. Pembroke have achieved a unique feat in reaching all four of the national cup finals but will be hoping that they can avoid an unwanted tally of four losses having missed out in the two Senior Cup finals.

They play back to back on Sunday with the women starting off against UCD II at 12pm. Pembroke beat UCD twice in the league but bowed out of the Jacqui Potter Cup to the students, coached by Tom O’Donoghue so this one could be particularly tight.

Hannah McGrane provides great pace for the students while Sam Willis and Orla Macken are high quality operators. Indeed, they can probably draw on a couple of strong players from their first team’s glittering extended panel that they might not have during the regular season.

Pembroke, though, have a settled side. Jessie Elliott – who last year played in the IHL final with Loreto – has been outstanding between the posts while Eimear McCarthy drives the team with her all out energy.

Co-coach Patrick Good – working with Ronan Flannery – will have a busy day as he then lines out with his club’s men’s team as they hope to dethrone reigning champions Monkstown II.

Monkstown II's Zack Dutton offers a big corner threat Pic: Adrian Boehm

Monkstown II’s Zack Dutton offers a big corner threat Pic: Adrian Boehm

Pembroke were 16 points better off in the league while both clubs are coached by former members of their opposition – Justin Sherriff and Michael Styles. The Town, though, love a good cup run with Alec Barrett adding to their mix in recent times.

David Nolan and Jazze Henry are among a wealth of St Andrew’s men in their panel with Wilf King and Geoff Cole on board while Zack Dutton’s corner flicks give them real menace.

Pembroke have experience at the back in Duncan McKeen and Peter Priestly while there is a wealth of other talent on board who arrived this season. Former UCD pair David Quinn and John Brennan, Fingal pair Andrew and Glen Shekleton and Bandon’s Scott Sullivan bring lots of top level ability.

Botanic are the other Leinster side in action, facing a big task in Clonakilty in the women’s Irish Hockey Challenge. They feature former Cork Harlequins star Hilary Chapple along with a trio of Munster junior players, Fred Buttimer key among them. It is Clon’s third season in existence and they have earned promotion each season.

Elsewhere, Cork C of I have consolidated fourth place in the Munster league and are comfortable on the road as they take on North Down in the women’s Trophy final. Four away wins, taking in three trips to Dublin and one to Galway, show their mettle with Ali O’Regan a key figure. Their Ulster opposition feature the noisy Adrienne Da Costa, the former Trinity goalkeeper, between the posts.

Their game opens up the weekend on Saturday, a busy one for Munster clubs in Dublin. Bandon contest the men’s Trophy decider against Ulster Senior One winners Newry. Irish internationals Clinton Sweetnam and Ali Smith returned to the club this season to give experience to a side that have a wealth of underage international trialists.

Limerick and Portrush close out the weekend in the men’s Irish Hockey Challenge on Sunday evening. Limerick have former Dublin Uni man Roger Clarke in their ranks with Nathan Eacrett leads the line.

Men’s Irish Hockey League playoff (Sunday): Annadale v Cork Harlequins, IHL Play-off, 1.30pm, Milltown

Women’s Irish Hockey League, wildcard qualifiers
Catholic Institute vs NUIG, 12.30pm, Rosbrien; Ulster Elks vs Old Alex, 2pm
Sunday: Wildcard final, 3.30pm, Milltown

Irish Hockey Association finals (all at Belfield)
Saturday, April 12
Women’s Irish Hockey Trophy:
Cork C of I vs North Down, 1pm
Women’s Irish Hockey Challenge: Botanic vs Clonakilty, 3pm,
Men’s Irish Hockey Trophy: Bandon vs Newry, 5pm

Sunday, April 13
Women’s Irish Junior Cup:
UCD II vs Pembroke II, 12pm
Men’s Irish Junior Cup: Pembroke II vs Monkstown II, 2pm
Men’s Irish Hockey Challenge: Portrush vs Limerick, 4pm

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