Ireland’s senior men play the first test match of 2015 on Sunday in Cape Town as they take on South Africa to kickstart their Olympic qualifying preparations.
Craig Fulton’s side do so in positive mood having moved up to 14th in the world rankings released this week, moving within one place of this week’s host nation following upbeat performances last year.Ronan Gormley, meanwhile, was honoured as the Crefelder HTC player of 2014 on Thursday, showing he has a lot to offer the side on his return after missing the French series in the autumn.
South Africa look set to provide a stern test but look to be in transition with just eight players in their panel of 23 retained from last year’s World Cup. They do feature a number of familiar faces with four players who have played in Ireland: Gowan Jones, Jethro Eustice (both Corinthian and Pembroke), Pierre de Voux (Three Rock Rovers) and Brandon Panther (Pembroke).
This is the first of six matches Ireland will play on this warm-weather tour, taking in two games each against the hosts, world number two side the Netherlands and Belgium.
After that, Ireland will play France three times in Dublin before jetting out to San Diego for World League round two in mid-February. There, a top three finish will earn a place in round three in the summer where the tickets to Rio in 2016 are doled out.
David and Conor Harte, meanwhile, start their Hockey India League campaign with Dabang Mumbai when they meet the Jaypee Punjab Warriors on Friday before hosting the Ranchi Rays on Saturday.
On the home front, it’s round 13 of the Leinster men’s division one with more twists possible in the IHL battle. The key game in that regard is Glenanne’s hosting of YMCA.
The Tallaght side impressed in their deserved win over Three Rock with Stephen Brownlow proving to be a pivotal player with 11 goals from midfield. Rowland Rixon-Fuller and Gary Shaw have returned at the right time to add quality and depth to the panel.
As always with YM, Iain Walker provides a superb last line of defence but their run of four successive wins was ended in midweek by a dogged UCD side who defended well, meaning the Y missed out on potentially moving up to third spot.
Stephen Walker is a good addition on his return from travelling while Korbi Griessel and two goals already from Kurt Hensburg show they mean businsess. How they bounce back will be crucial to Jason Klinkradt’s charges as they face some big showdowns in the coming month.
Corinthian’s IHL hopes are hanging by a thread with five points to make up in the last third of the season but they can go some way to reigniting their bid if they can beat the side directly above them, Railway Union.
Gordie Clarke returned to the first team between the posts last week for the reds in place of Ross Murray who is in the US. Railway’s need is similarly strong and they are on a run of three wins in four games – scoring 13 times in the process – to suggest they have the edge.
The other ties pit sides in the top four against the three sides at the bottom. They all do so without their international players, making for potential banana-skins.Pembroke meet Rathgar without goalkeeper Mark Ingram – one of the players of the season to date – with Hugh Lavery or Charlie Henderson potentially filling in.
Monkstown miss livewire forward Peter Caruth and keeper David Fitzgerald for their game with UCD; Jamie Carr is set to deputise for the latter at UCD. Avoca, meanwhile, host Three Rock who are shy the services of Jonny Bruton and Mitch Darling.
A three-pronged Leinster contingent remains in the Irish Hockey Trophy with Fingal and Kilkenny spoiling for a rumble in an enticing match at ALSAA with Tom Manning and Derek O’Gorman shaping up against their former club.
Clontarf face a long trip to the Antrim coast to meet Portrush, a side struggling in Senior One in Ulster but the northern province has bossed this competition and are always strong on home turf.
In division two, Three Rock Rovers face a big weekend as they play two back matches, after a particularly weather hit schedule, that could see them top the table by Sunday evening.
Senior international challenge (Sunday): South Africa v Ireland, 4pm, Hartleyvale
Leinster Division One (all Saturday): Pembroke v Rathgar 2pm, Serpentine Avenue; Corinthian v Railway Union, 2.15pm, Whitechurch Park; UCD v Monkstown, 2.45pm, Belfield; Glenanne v YMCA, 3pm, Glenanne Park; Avoca v Three Rock Rovers, 4.15pm, Newpark
Saturday: Railway Union II v Three Rock Rovers II, 4.30pm, Park Avenue
Sunday: Kilkenny v Three Rock Rovers II, 2.30pm, Kilkenny College
Irish Hockey Trophy, second round: Portrush v Clontarf, 1pm, Ballycastle; Fingal v Kilkenny, 1.30pm, ALSAA; North Down v Bandon, 2.30pm, Comber LC; Raphoe v South Antrim, 2.30pm, Royal and Prior