Big Five give their blessing to new hockey set-up
Ulster Hockey's slim hopes of maintaining a competitive men's Premier League next season are all but over ... because their top five teams have effectively given their backing to the new full all-Ireland league competition.
On a weekend when this season's Irish Hockey League finals should be the major talking point, with Banbridge bidding to land a unique clean sweep of trophies, the spotlight has instead fallen on the make-up of next season's competition.
And with Banbridge, Lisnagarvey, Cookstown and Annadale now having confirmed to the IHA that they are willing to take part next term, and Instonians prepared to play in this weekend's Wild Card play-offs to determine the final slot, it has left Ulster officials bewildered.
The vote at the recent Ulster Special General Meeting was overwhelmingly in favour of resisting the new format, although it was evident Bann and Garvey were keen to take part.
But it's an apparent about-turn from Cookstown, Annadale and Instonians who seemingly are now happy with assurances made by the IHA, particularly in regard to financial implications.
Instonians, though, have advised the IHA that they intend to hold a Special General Meeting within the next two weeks to decide what is best for the well-being of their club.
If they lose this weekend's Wild Card play-offs - they face Railway Union and UCC - then the SGM will probably end up academic. But if they win, then members will have a difficult decision to make.
It's disappointing news all round for Ulster Hockey officials, who believed they could resist the new IHL format and hold together their thriving Premier League, but it will now be a case of restructuring in the absence of their big guns.
On the other hand, it's going to be full steam ahead for the IHL who soon hope to announce the new sponsor for the league and what financial help will be given to clubs to offset the additional travel costs.
In the meantime all eyes will be on Banbridge to see if they can complete their season unbeaten at the finals weekend at Three Rock's Grange Road ground and end up with the grand slam of five trophies.
It's Pembroke who stand in their way on Saturday in the semi-finals, and if they clear that hurdle, then it's either current champions Monkstown or Three Rock in Sunday's decider.
Bann beat Pembroke 4-0 in the Irish Senior Cup semi-final a few weeks ago and indeed beat Three Rock 4-0 in the IHL pool programme but coach Mark Tumilty knows all too well that this time it's a different ball game.
Skipper Eugene Magee believes Bann can achieve the holy grail providing they hit top form. And, for him, it would tick another box in his list of triumphs.
"Bann won the IHL back in 2011," recalls Eugene. "But I was playing abroad and so missed out. An IHL medal is the one domestic or national trophy I don't have in my collection ... yet."
Bann certainly have many possible matchwinners, including Eugene and his younger brother Owen.
Striker Stephen Dowds has almost 60 domestic goals this season already, Dane Ward is hitting top form and Jamie Wright is full of confidence after scoring the Irish Senior Cup winner a fortnight ago, and that's not even counting Neil Gilmore, Fraser Mills and set-piece expert Matthew Bell.
IHL Wild Card Play-Offs at Three Rock
Irish Hockey League semi-finals (Three Rock): Banbridge v Pembroke (3pm), Monkstown v Three Rock (5pm)
IHL Wild Card Play-Offs at Three Rock Senior One: Raphoe v Antrim, Royal & Prior, 2.30pm; Campbellians v Portrush, Campbell College, 1pm; North Down v South Antrim, Comber LC, 2.30pm.
IHL Final (Three Rock): Banbridge or Pembroke v Monkstown or Three Rock (4pm)
IHL Wild Card Play-Offs at Three Rock