Bann aiming to hit back but big names are still missing
The Irish international squad head off to Spain soon for warm-weather training ahead of their World League 2 tournament at Stormont but, before they go, the bulk of the players will be lining out for their clubs in the final round of EY Irish Hockey League fixtures until mid-February.
The on-off IHL programme can sometimes be frustrating for clubs, but the breaks are generally geared towards the international team and their commitments, and on this occasion it's aimed at preparation for the first phase of the qualification process for the World Cup finals.
National coach Craig Fulton had originally hoped to take his players to his home country of South Africa for the pre-tournament build-up but Hockey Ireland's coffers can ill afford that, and so it's off to Spain instead after the January 21 Irish Senior Cup quarter-finals.
First of all, it's the IHL this weekend and it's an important one for leaders Banbridge - they not only play their scheduled Saturday game against Glenanne at Havelock Park but follow it up by taking on Cork C of I on Sunday in a game that was postponed before Christmas.
Coming hot on the heels of their first defeat of the season last week, a 2-1 setback at Three Rock Rovers, Mark Tumilty's lads know they need maximum points from the double-header weekend to maintain their lofty position - but for the second week in a row they'll be understrength.
They'll still be without international defenders Matthew Bell (ankle) and Drew Carlisle (honeymoon) and striker Fraser Mills (broken knuckle), while forward Jamie Wright is available for the Glenanne game but unavailable for the Cork clash.
Coach Tumilty, though, knows he has good strength in depth and will be glad to welcome Owen Magee back into the attack after missing the last game.
Bann skipper Bell said: "I'm on the mend but this weekend is a bit too soon. But I should be back for the Irish Senior Cup the following week.
"It's not a good time to be out of action, but maybe I'll be lucky and this forecast of snow might put paid to some of the games!"
Bann will have to minimise the number of penalty corners they concede as international duo Shane O'Donoghue (Glenanne) and John Jermyn (Cork) are prolific, with Jermyn the IHL's top scorer with 14.
Meanwhile, Instonians are unlikely to get much out of their trip to Leinster giants Monkstown while they'll be hoping Lisnagarvey can see off Railway Union with ease to keep the Dubliners in the relegation battle.
In the Ulster Senior League, only one point separates the top three, Cookstown, Annadale and Kilkeel, although the Tyrone men have a vital game in hand.
Cookstown go to North Down, the Dale take on Portadown and Kilkeel host Belfast Harlequins.
The top two in Senior One, Antrim and South Antrim, are both expected to win against Ballynahinch and Portrush respectively.
MEN’S SENIOR FIXTURES
FRIDAY: Senior One: Portrush v South Antrim (Ballycastle, 8pm)
SATURDAY: EY Irish Hockey League: Lisnagarvey v Railway (Hillsborough, 3pm); Banbridge v Glenanne (Havelock Park, 2.45pm); Monkstown v Instonians (Merrion, 2.30pm); Three Rock v UCD (3pm); Pembroke v Cork C of I (2pm)
Premier League: Kilkeel v Harlequins (Kilkeel, 2.30pm); Raphoe v Campbellians (Royal & Prior, 2.30pm); Annadale v Portadown (Lough Moss, 2.30pm); Nth. Down v Cookstown (Comber, 4pm); Newry v Mossley (Newry, 2.30pm)
Senior One: Cliftonville v Armagh (2.30pm); Bangor v Queen’s (2.30pm); Antrim v Ballynahinch (1pm).