Given the storied recent history of UCD and Railway Union, no matter who emerges from Pembroke and Lurgan’s semi-final, they will be going into Sunday’s final as underdog.They are two clubs in similar positions, still pushing for a place in the Irish Hockey League with sixth placed standings in their respective provincial leagues. Pembroke are going for a 13th title in the Irish Senior Cup but it has been 39 years since their last success with just two finals appearances since then.
The most recent appearance was back in 2007 but the squad has changed wholesale since then with coaches Chris Tyrrell and Keith Crawford drawing hugely on the student clubs to bolster a panel that had seen a large number of retirements and emigration.
Hayley O’Donnell is an injury doubt following last weekend’s double-weekend. She has been a component of one of the meanest defences in the league with Stella Davis immaculate between the posts while Claire Mulcahy and Caroline Murphy have regularly formed a strong barrier in the centre.
Further upfield, Rachel Scott is a fine midfield schemer while Rachel O’Brien is quickly emerging due to her pace down the left channel. Livewire Jilly Collins and the direct movement of Rachel O’Reilly, Eanna and Maebh Horan will likely be the routes from which they hope to land penalty corners.
Their quarter-final win over Loreto was a marquee moment in their much improved season, coming from 2-0 down to equalise and duly win on strokes and they will be quietly confident of going a step further.
Lurgan have produced some great young talents in recent years but some have moved on from the club, Hannah Grieve now with Pegasus while the Barr sisters have been signed up by colleges in the US.
Nonetheless, they are keen to build on their experience of youth level finals and progress on the national stage to the final for the very first time.
“We are just hoping that nerves won’t be a factor but we have plenty of players who have experienced cup finals at school level so hopefully that will stand to them,” Lurgan manager Darwin Murray told the Belfast Newsletter.
“We know next to nothing about Pembroke bar their results but because the standard in Leinster is higher than it is in Ulster you can’t read too much into that. But we will concentrate on getting our own house in order and we are just hoping we can put in a big performance because we will certainly need one.”The opening tie of the weekend, though, is the one most likely to produce an overall winner. Railway Union and UCD have diced so many times in high profile showdowns of late but this time around the students most definitely have the favourites tag despite their opponent being the reigning champions.
The primary evidence is last weekend’s decisive Leinster women’s division one league win in which UCD built a 3-0 lead before Railway belatedly got their game up and running. The other factor is the thinned squad Railway have had at their disposal of late with Isobel Joyce, Cecelia Joyce and Kate McKenna unavailable for the remainder of the campaign due to cricket commitments
Holly Jenkinson’s return to San Francisco after Christmas for work takes away a huge defensive asset while Grace O’Flanagan has been in Sydney with Leinster U-21 Rachel Barnett stepping in between the posts.
As such, Railway have been a bit off the pace this season. But, under Mick McKinnon, they were experts at saving their best performances for the finals weekends, last year’s immaculately controlled second half performance against UCD in the Senior Cup final a case in point. Nasir Munir will hope the likes of Emer Lucey, Kate Dillon, Sinead Dooley and Emma Smyth can summon that kind of performance again.
Top scorer Alex Speers and Dooley helped them go into the final on a winning note as they beat Old Alex 2-0 on Thursday night in the Leinster league
On the flip side, UCD will use that 2013 setback as motivation and they have been in ominous form building up to the final. Last weekend’s win over Railway, coupled with an assured 3-1 win over Loreto confirmed as much though they could have been further clear had they sorted out their corner routine.
When margins are tight, this could be a big chink in their armour but there are so many goals in the sticks of Anna O’Flanagan, Deirdre Duke and Nikki Evans as well as Jeamie Deacon joining from midfield – perhaps the most surprising omission from the shortlist for Women’s Club Player of the Year.
The 26-year-old former Railway player has been superb this term though has been carrying a little knock of late that could hamper her midfield promptings. Brenda Flannery’s distribution from the back is key to setting their pace free with a strong sweep and overhead, allowing Emily Beatty plenty of room to roam.It means this is more likely to be an open game than the second semi-final, both games offering different types of intrigue as they battle for a place in Sunday’s final at Belfield.
On the Leinster front, Old Alex’s 2-0 loss on Thursday to Railway means they certainly need to win their final league game against North Kildare to have some sort of breathing room ahead of Pembroke in the race for the fifth Irish Hockey League berth.
For the Kilcock side, it is last chance saloon time as they look to escape the bottom rung of the table with a result at Milltown while hoping Corinthian do not grab something from their trip to Glenanne. Either way, that tussle will be decided by end of play on Saturday.
In Europe, Ards started their EuroHockey Indoor Club Champions Challenge I campaign in style with a 5-2 win over Portugal’s Lisbon Casuals with Chloe Brown netting twice. They are in a single seven-team pool in Budpest and will face Swedish, Serbian, Welsh, Croatian and Hungarian opposition over the course of the weekend.
Women’s Irish Senior Cup, semi-finals (both at Belfield; Saturday, February 22): UCD vs Railway Union, 10.30am; Pembroke vs Lurgan, 12.30pm
Final (Sunday, February 23): 1.15pm, Belfield
Women’s Division One
Thursday: Railway Union 2 (A Speers, S Dooley) Old Alex 0
Saturday: Glenanne v Corinthian, 12pm, Glenanne Park; Loreto v Hermes, 2.15pm, Beaufort; Old Alex v North Kildare, 2.30pm, Milltown
EuroHockey Indoor Club Champions Challenge I (Budapest)
Friday: Ards 5 (C Brown, A Benson, B Weir, K Bennett) Lisbon Casuals (Portugal) 2; Amator Gyeplabda Sportegyesulet (HUN) vs Ards, 3.40pm
Saturday: HK Bask (SRB) vs Ards, 11am; Partille (SWE) vs Ards, 3.40pm
Sunday: Ards vs Howardian (WAL), 12.30pm; Ards vs Hockey Club Zrinjevac (CRO), 4pm