The pre-Christmas pace-setters in the men’s EY Hockey League meet in an enticing opening gambit to 2020 with Lisnagarvey welcoming Monkstown with top spot on the line.
It is part of five well-matched fixtures on the card which were originally postponed from day three of the competition due to Olympic qualifier preparations.
Free-scoring Garvey went through the first phase of the league in breathtaking form with a series of big wins, netting 39 times in seven ties. The only blemish was a 4-4 draw with Glenanne but, in that, they managed to summon a comeback from 4-0 down, showing the wealth of belief coursing through their veins.
They carry no injuries or changes to their squad into the new year but coach Erroll Lutton is not getting ahead of himself, knowing their two-point lead is a narrow one.
“We have a young team who have made a solid start to what is probably the most open and competitive of EY IHL league since it began in 2015,” he said. “We’re obviously happy with the start we’ve made but, as last year showed, any team is capable of putting a run together to be in the mix for either the top spot or a top four place.”
Town, meanwhile, found their mojo after a slow start with two draws to start their campaign, winning everything since then. After a couple of seasons out of contention, player-coach Gareth Watkins feels his side is getting back in the groove.
“The big thing for us was that we turned around a pattern of losing tight games by a goal last year, to winning them by one this year,” he said.
“It has been a real team effort, built on a strong defense. For the second half of the season we are under no illusions that this is a very tight league with teams taking points off each other regardless of what position they sit in. So we will keep approaching it week by week and look to keep making improvements.”
Youngsters Gavin Gleeson and Max Guilfoyle have stepped up well into the first team since November while Ryan Spencer looks more and more at home at this level.
They will have to cope without Jason Lynch until March at least due to a hand injury sustained on Irish indoor duty in Spain. Captain David Cole is also rehabbing with March also pegged for a return.
Keith Kenning has been excellent in his stead while David Fitzgerald was at his very best. Rory Nichols’ contribution at corner time is crucial in turning tight games.
It is also a big day at the bottom with ninth playing tenth – Pembroke against Annadale. It is something of a surprise to see the former in that position with just one win to their name but coach Paudie Carley is making no excuses about, resolving to make things right in 2020.
“I think the league table rarely lies so we are where we are,” he said. “That said, we have been on the wrong side of a number of games we really did enough to win and errors at the wrong times let us down. We don’t intend repeating those errors in the second half of the season!”
He will look to give young guns like Alex O’Meara, Henry Thompson, Liam Labuschagne and James Maginnis their chance to establish themselves on the map while Rob McCollum brings drive and skill to their attacking midfield sector.
Eric Foy is back after a significant injury break while Keith O’Hare has been a big miss to their central defensive partnership with Harry Spain. Kirk Shimmins’ whirlwind of energy should propel them in the right way for the Dale challenge.
For the Ulster side, last summer was a rough one with lots of big players moving on with the club’s youth section the primary route to replace them. As such, it has been a tough baptism for Richard Fariman’s troops.
“As the league will show, we have had a tough start to the season with almost a complete new squad and coach for the 19-20 season.
“That said things are coming along; with the new squad, learning in high performance sport can be a good but harsh place to learn. That thankfully is being grasped by all involved, taking it one game at a time and trying to ensure we build on our performances game by game.
“With 50% of the squad still at school level, this is the biggest challenge, trying to ensure that burnout is avoided with the demands of school hockey.
“A high percentage of these athletes are also involved with provincial and international youth setups training also which although a great achievement for all is also having to be managed.”
Three Rock Rovers had an erratic first half to the season with some big wins and some heavy defeats as they managed a large series of incoming and outgoing players from the side that swept the board last term.
That trend has continued ahead of their game with Corinthian on Saturday. Conor Quinn returned just before Christmas from the US and will vye for the goalkeeping duties with Shane O’Brien while Peter Blakeney is also back in training.
On the flip side, Ali Empey switched to UCD while Ben Johnson had surgery on his knee in mid-December and could be out for the rest of the season.
Ben Ryder, Luke Adams, Evan Jennings and Harry Lynch will likely play an increasing role in the side with coach Elun Hack praising their “excellent ability”.
“With several new additions to the squad in key positions, and a new coaching staff, it was always going to take time to adjust,” is Hack’s assessment of the first half of the campaign.
“Inconsistency meant results which we would not have hoped for in our pre-season goal setting, but have provided us with the opportunity to learn from and hopefully improve our performances.
“Hopefully we will continue to improve in the second half of the season, and maintain our place in the top four come the end of the season. TRR have been very successful in the playoff weekends over the past number of seasons, and two good performances in EHL, shows the team’s ability to rise to the big occasions.
“Hopefully we can secure a playoff place and once again demonstrate our ability to get the desired results at the business end of the season.”
Corinthian, meanwhile, welcome back an old friend to the line-up this weekend with Charlie Henderson – 40 later this month – named on the squad list as number one goalkeeper. The goalkeeper previously played for Three Rock in their 2008 All-Ireland winning side and run to EHL KO16 in 2009.
The reds were hard to beat before Christmas, winning once but drawing four times with a strong defensive setup under Joe Brennan.
Glenanne host UCD at St Andrew’s – UCD were one of the stories of the first half of the season, sitting in third since earning promotion in 2019. The Glens, meanwhile, are another side marked by inconsistency but coach Gary Shaw feels that is being ironed out.
“Losing eight of our squad from last season did impact us early,” he said. “We settled as the season went on and started to gain some momentum again before Christmas. The break probably came at the wrong time for us but cannot be helped. February is a key month for us, so if we can put together some results, we have a positive outlook for the remainder of the season.”
Jason Rogan is back from injury and adds to Shaw’s options up front; Gavin Gibney, however, has an internship offer in California – he leaves in early February and is not scheduled back until September and so is a loss.
YMCA’s youthful side host Banbridge at Wesley with the former pushing some of the big sides all the way and landing a memorable 3-2 win over Pembroke to sit in eighth.
Bann were underwhelming for the first couple of months of the season but hit their stride with three wins out of four, propelling them from ninth to fifth.
In Leinster, Clontarf will expect no hiccups from their home tie against Bray despite the absence of John Mullins with a foot injury and Lorcan McCormack to an ankle issue. Win and they go six points clear with Railway not in action until next Wednesday.
Dublin North host Portrane in the Fingal derby; Dublin University meet Avoca and Kilkenny take on Rathgar.
Men’s weekend fixtures
EYHL Division 1: Glenanne v UCD, St Andrew’s, 2.45pm; Lisnagarvey v Monkstown, Comber Road, 3pm; Pembroke v Annadale, Serpentine Avenue, 3pm; Three Rock Rovers v Corinthian, Grange Road, 1.30pm; YMCA v Banbridge, Wesley College, 2.15pm
Leinster Division 1: Clontarf v Bray, Mount Temple, 11.30am; Dublin North v Portrane, National Sports Campus, 12.45pm; Dublin University v Avoca, Santry Avenue, 1pm; Kilkenny v Rathgar, Kilkenny College, 2pm
Munster Division 1: Catholic Institute v Ashton, Rosbrien, 2pm; Cork C of I v Cork Harlequins, Garryduff, 12pm; Waterford v Bandon, Newtown, 1.30pm