As many as 15 internationals could line out at Rathdown on Saturday as the two most impressive sides to date in the EYHL, Lisnagarvey and reigning champions Monkstown, lock horns.
Garvey hold a four-point lead in the national league ahead of their south Dublin hosts but they will be wary that their only loss of the campaign came in the reverse fixture, falling 5-2 at Hillsborough.
Since then, Jonny Bell has fully recovered from injury and the well-travelled Mikey Watt has joined the ranks. Garvey have been unbeaten in all competitions and showed their attacking intent last Saturday in a 6-3 demolition of Railway Union in the Irish Senior Cup.
Town, , stumbled against Three Rock Rovers and Glenanne before the winter break to lose ground but looked in ominous form on their outdoor return last Sunday in the cup when they swept aside Pembroke.
They have seven players from the Irish panel that travelled to South Africa in January in their squad but Peter Caruth is a doubt due to illness.
Gareth Watkins is in the form of his life, driving forward with real menace. Working in tandem with Kyle Good, Davy Carson, the razor-sharp Jonny Bruton and goal-poacher supreme Andrew Ward, they too can score in abundance.
Below them, the scramble for the third guaranteed EYHL playoff place is set to be a heated one. Banbridge have revenge on their mind when they host Railway Union after the Dubliners knocked them out of the cup.
The Co Down club will want to shake off their draw-masters’ tag and get back to winning more regularly and turning one point into three. Stephen Dowds was not quite at his 2014-15 level in terms of goalcoring but has still has eight to his name in the league and is one to watch at the head of their multi-faceted attack.
They will be without Neil Gilmore for the remainder of the season, though, as he returns to Portadown with work commitments limiting his availability to Bann in the first half of the season. He finished last year with over 20 goals to his name.
Mark Tumilty’s men will hope they get up to game pace quickly having not played a competitive tie – bar the Nigel Cheevers tournament – since December. Railway have been active on a number of fronts but bowed out of both the Leinster and Irish Senior Cups in the past fortnight.
They struggled in the face of Lisnagarvey’s desire to run at the heart of their defence last weekend and were picked off regularly. They will look to tighten up considerably to combine with their usual attacking intent – Railway are the equal third highest scorers yet sit in seventh.
In Garryduff, Cork C of I’s form is on a divergent path to Saturday’s opponent, Glenanne, at Garryduff; after three initial wins, they have not won since mid-October.
The Glens, meanwhile, have lost just one of their last six ties in the league and are through to the Irish Senior Cup semi-final where they have been drawn against Monkstown. The reverse fixture saw John Jermyn in rude health, breaking at will from midfield and firing home corners. He is an injury doubt, curtailing his involvement last week against Three Rock Rovers in the cup.
Three Rock host Annadale on Saturday with both looking to improve on their 1-1 draw on day two of the season. It is a meeting between two of Ireland’s premier underage coaches and Niall Denham and Andy Smyth know each other well from their work with the Ireland junior age groups.
Like the Banbridge-Railway tie, the Leinster outfit has had much more game time in 2016 than their Ulster counterparts, running up wins over Railway in the Mills Cup and C of I in the Irish Senior.
Rovers’ defence has been their key area with David Kane’s penalty corner running a feature while Jamie Carr has been exceptional. Further forward, Peter Blakeney and Jody Hosking have the ability to turn games.
Dale, however, need to find a consistent goalscorer with Matthew Allister, with three, their highest to date, and only twice have they scored two goals or more.
On Sunday, Pembroke play Cookstown in a key game for both teams. A win for the Leinster side will assuage any lingering doubts of being embroiled in a scrap to avoid the relegation playoffs with a minimum of six points in the difference their reward.
Lose, though, and Cookstown will be right on their tails. Pembroke showed a fast tempo against Monkstown in the first half of their Senior Cup last week with Karl Lynch a driving force.
They struggled, though, when the substitutions started kicking in with the sky-blues greater depth seeing them pull away. Jason Lynch has an arm in a cast that will see him out for the forseeable future.
In midweek, the Irish Senior Cup draw pits Glenanne at home against Monkstown while Lisnagarvey host Three Rock Rovers on February 27. In a change from recent years, the matches will be played at the club’s home venues rather than on a finals weekend in Belfield. For the Glens, it is the first time they have reached both the Irish Senior and Junior Cup semi-finals in the same season.
In Leinster’s Division 1A, Corinthian host UCD while Avoca play a YMCA side who are opening their campaign in this competition.
EY Hockey League
Saturday: Cork C of I v Glenanne, 2.30pm, Garryduff; Banbridge v Railway Union, 2.45pm, Havelock Park; Monkstown v Lisnagarvey, 4pm, Merrion Fleet Arena; Three Rock Rovers v Annadale, 4pm, Grange Road
Sunday: Pembroke v Cookstown, 3pm, Serpentine Avenue
Leinster Division 1A: Corinthian v UCD, 12pm, Whitechurch Park; Avoca v YMCA, 12.30pm, Newpark
Division 1B: Kilkenny v Fingal, 12.30pm, Kilkenny College; Rathgar v Weston, 4pm, High School
Irish Senior Cup semi-final draw: (February 27): Glenanne v Monkstown; Lisnagarvey v Three Rock Rovers
Irish Junior Cup semi-final draw: (March 13): Instonians v Monkstown; Glenanne v Cork Church of Ireland