UCD and Loreto will both be hoping to be the side to continue Leinster clubs’ dominance in the women’s EY Champions Trophy with the title remaining in the province since its inauguration in 2016 with Pegasus and Cork Harlequins looking to break that run.
The duo meet at the semi-final stage for the second successive season following Loreto’s stunning late run a year ago to win the national crown.
Such was their outsider status, coach Paul Fitzpatrick had a holiday booked for the finals weekend with their playoff chances looking remote before a late season charge.
This year, they have looked a shoo-in for the final four for a long-time and star defender Hannah Matthews admits it has been a very different preparation phase.
Indeed, they played some great stuff in Amsterdam in the EuroHockey Club Cup to give them an elevated level of competition at just the right time.
“The run-up to this year’s final four weekend has been totally different for us!” she told The Hook. “Last year we were able to take a lot of momentum into the semi-final. This year the timing of Euros was ideal for us it gave us an opportunity to step up and was key in maintaining focus.
“The Euros has really given the squad a boost in confidence. We competed against some of the best players in the world and played great hockey at times especially in the Hamburg game. It has reinforced that we have quality from 1-18 in our squad and we are all capable of adding value to the team and playing good hockey.”
The World Cup silver medalist added that it does change the perspective, particularly as last year’s run was marked by minimal expectations from outside their own panel.
‘I think as an outsider looking in there would definitely be more expectation on us. However, we expect a lot from ourselves and last year was no different. A couple of results didn’t go our way at the beginning of our season, we were relatively inexperienced as a whole but I think we knew that by the end of the season if we could just make top four we could win it.”
They face a UCD side who will be without Lena Tice and Irish Under-21 international Abbie Russell, continuing a frustrating trend for coach Miles Warren.
He says his side’s motto has simply been “to play the cards we have been dealt” as their injury woes continue and he may have just 16 players to work with for the weekend.
The students finished the regular season in third place but have beaten all of their Champions Trophy rivals this season and have a good record against their Dublin rivals.
And there is a sense of trying to exact revenge on Loreto from last year’s meeting at the exact same stage of the competition.
Then, UCD were heavy favourites; this year, the roles are reversed and while Warren knows this, he says his panel can nick a place in Sunday’s final.
“All the games between the two teams have been extremely tight over the last couple of years. They would be favourites since they ended higher than us in the league and they have just gained great experience in Holland playing the top club sides in Europe. Having said that, we have played them three times this season and we won one and drew the other two.
“For us, our objective at the start of the year was to get to the finals weekend, we have done that and now we believe it’s anyone’s game and with the quality we have throughout our squad we feel we can win any game on the day. We look forward to Saturday and I’m sure it will be another high-class match between the two teams.”
In the earlier semi, Pegasus have been dealt a major blow to their chances of lifting the Champions Trophy as they will be without Shirley McCay for their semi-final with Cork Harlequins.
Ireland’s most capped sportswoman has been hit with a two-match ban after accumulating three yellow cards and, having sat out Saturday’s game with Belfast Harlequins, she will complete the sanction against their Cork namesakes.
Pegasus feel aggrieved about the circumstances of the 31-year-old’s suspension but have had an appeal against it turned down by Hockey Ireland.
The club has no issue with the ban itself but are annoyed that it only came into force 11 weeks after McCay received the third yellow card on January 26 in an Irish Senior Cup game with Pembroke in Dublin.
However, the umpire failed to report the card within the stipulated 48 hours time-frame and the disciplinary hearing was therefore delayed.
In fact there were nine EY IHL games following McCay’s third yellow card during which the ban could have been served and now McCay and Pegasus must pay the penalty.
Hockey Ireland’s Appeal Tribunal upheld the two-match suspension as they “did not consider there were grounds for appeal because the late submission of the report did not constitute any breach of a rule of regulation” albeit it acknowledged the case highlighted a flaw in procedures and returned the appeal fee to Pegasus.
However, that is of no consolation to the club, who now must do without the 278-times capped McCay for the Cork game.
Pegasus chairperson Michelle Rainey said to John Flack: “Despite the fact that we feel the original sanction of a two-match suspension may seem harsh, we totally appreciate that the accrual of three yellow cards evokes the need for disciplinary action and we did not appeal the sanction itself, merely the timing of it.
“What we remain disappointed by is the apparent lack of appreciation in the correspondence that the timing of the suspension arguably is to be served during a game that has much higher stakes than one during the earlier stages of the EYHL simply because of inconsistency in current procedures.”
So Pegasus are resigned to being without their most influential player for the semi-final with a Cork side that ironically won the corresponding Irish Cup semi-final last month when McCay was unavailable due to an Irish training session.
However, they are already guaranteed a place in Europe’s second tier next year irrespective of how they perform this weekend, having won the IHL regulation season title.
Pegasus captain Michelle Harvey said: “Obviously, it’s going to be even tougher without Shirley and while it’s nice to have the fall back of knowing we’re already in Europe, we would love to take part in the top flight competition and pit ourselves against the best sides.”
Cork Harlequins snuck into the final four playoffs on the final day of the regular season with a narrow 2-1 win over now-relegated Ards.
It gives them a chance of emulating their semi-final success of 12 months ago when they knocked out Pegasus but, much more than so last year, they go in as serious underdogs.
Indeed, given the fresh faces in the Quins’ line-up, it has been a remarkable effort to remain in the top four with Roisin Upton, Nicola Kerr, Emma Buckley and Naomi Carroll no longer around from the last term.
But their schoolgirls have stepped up brilliantly while Lorna Bateman and Becky Maye have shared the goalkeeping duties following Buckley’s move to Brussels.
Alex O’Grady, Emma Barber and Michelle Barry have stepped up as real leaders with World Cup star Yvonne O’Byrne driving them on but Cliodhna Sargent’s injury absence will be a massive loss on this stage.
Meanwhile, Queen’s University have one final chance to join the EY Hockey League as they prepare to take on Muckross for the last remaining spot on Sunday at Havelock Park.
The students fell short of succeeding at the first attempt when they lost to Catholic Institute on penalties in Sunday’s IHL 2 final, having been 2-0 and 3-2 up in the game itself.
Queen’s coach Simon Bell said: “I was absolutely gutted for the girls – we thought we had done enough to win it and it will be tough to get them lifted again for Sunday but we will give it a go.”
Women’s weekend fixtures
Saturday, May 4th
EY Champions Trophy semi-finals (both at Havelock Park, Banbridge): Pegasus v Cork Harlequins, 10.30am; Loreto v UCD, 12.30pm
Sunday, May 5th
EY Champions Trophy final: Pegasus/Cork Harlequins v Loreto/UCD, Havelock Park, 3pm
EYHL Promotion/Relegation play-off: Muckross v Queen’s, Havelock Park, 11.30am