The Irish hockey season reaches its climax at Grange Road, Rathfarnham, this weekend with the EY Champions Trophy, the competition that will decide both the women’s and men’s national champion for the 2017/18 season.
It features the top four from the two EY Hockey Leagues with both reigning champs in the mix once again, looking to make their mark once again in Saturday’s semi-finals, leading into Sunday’s final showdown.
On the women’s side, UCD are very much the side to beat. They won the competition last year in a shoot-out and have since gone on to win the Irish Senior Cup and the EY league with just one defeat – on the opening day to Cork Harlequins – on their record.
Indeed, under coach Miles Warren, they have lost just once in the last two seasons on the national stage. Their speed on the counter is something to behold with the ability to snap quickly from a defensive platform into all-out attack with just a couple of swift passes.
The attacking prowess of skipper Deirdre Duke, sisters Abbie and Emma Russell is backed up by a dynamic midfield of Ellen Curran, Sara Twomey and Irish captain Katie Mullan – the league’s top scorer with a healthy smattering of corner goals.
But while many outsiders focus on the offensive side, it’s the defence that has been pivotal in their run of 14 wins in succession in the league. They have let in just three times since the turn of 2018 with Clodagh Cassin superb in goal, protected by Lena Tice, Leah McGuire and the experienced Sarah Robinson.
Loreto have the task of taking them down and while the task is a big one, they are the side that has come closest to finding a way since October. They pushed UCD to a shoot-out in the Irish Senior Cup semi-final after a scoreless draw in normal time.
Just a single goal separated the sides in February in the league and it was the last time Loreto lost, embarking on an epic seven-game unbeaten run to snatch the fourth and final Champions Trophy ticket from under Railway Union’s noses.
Nicci Daly’s return from the US has provided a huge boost with her pace and trickery offering a key outlet, a perfect foil for the rising brilliance of Sarah Torrans and fellow youngsters like Christina Hamill, Mia Jennings and Siofra O’Brien.
Ali Meeke, Niamh Small and Hannah Matthews have all won national titles before, giving a strong spine to the line-up while teenager Hannah McLoughlin’s distribution and composure helps pull the strings.
The other side of the semi-final draw sees Cork Harlequins face Pegasus. The Munster side finished the season second and were, throughout the campaign, the longest challenger to UCD.
Indeed, they started off with an excellent 2-1 win on opening day over the students and remained unbeaten until January. But a few too many draws saw them lose ground and having to settle for second.
There is plenty of international talent in the side. Cliodhna Sargent – one of Ireland’s 200 club – came back into the side following pregnancy before Christmas to lend steel to their defence, freeing up Yvonne O’Byrne to tear down the flanks from the right.
Roisin Upton is one of the most accomplished midfielders while her corner drag-flicks always offer a threat. Michelle Barry has been in red-hot form up front, working with internationals Rebecca Barry and Naomi Carroll – only pipped to top scorer by Mullan on the final day of the campaign. Emma Buckley provides an excellent last line of defence.
They will have something to prove this year after last year’s injury-stricken semi-final against Hermes-Monkstown when they fell 6-2. Then, Carroll, Rebecca Barry, Sargent and Upton were all out while Buckley only made it out of hospital that week to play her role. This time, Upton and Carroll missed a couple of games in April but are on the comeback trail.
Pegasus, meanwhile, will be looking to get one over on Quins who raided Queen’s in February to score a big 2-1 result in the league.
Pegs will hope to have Shirley McCay – Ireland’s most capped player – back available after broken fingers ruled her out of the Irish Senior Cup finals weekend. Hers and Hannah Grieve’s range of passing, usually from the left, give Taite Doherty, sisters Katie and Lucy McKee and former Irish captain Alex Speers lots to work with.
Steph Thompson and Pamela Glass are an experienced centerpiece to their defence while Michelle Harvey and Ruth Maguire are the midfield engines. Three draws in their last four games may hint toward a shoot-out.
Weekend fixtures (all at Grange Road, Rathfarnham)
Women’s EY Champions Trophy
Semi-finals (both Saturday): UCD vs Loreto, 10.30am; Cork Harlequins vs Pegasus, 12.30pm
Final (Sunday): 2.30pm
EYHL 9th Place Play-off (Sunday): Trinity v Old Alexandra, 12pm.
€22 Weekend pass (adult only)
€17 Weekend pass (OAP /uni student)
€15 Single day pass (adult)
€10 Single day pass (OAP/uni student)
Free Secondary School Children and younger