Garvey and Bann sweat on Irish aces ahead of cup
Lisnagarvey coach Errol Lutton and his Banbridge counterpart Mark Tumilty are waiting anxiously to see if their international contingent return from Ireland's five-day training camp in Spain unscathed - particularly as Saturday sees the second round of the Irish Senior Cup.
Both Garvey and Bann have five players away to Barcelona - the young, inexperienced Irish lads lost 4-0 yesterday in the first of two games - and the last thing they need is to have any injuries ahead of the cup.
Garvey duo Sean Murray and Matthew Nelson made their international debuts, as did Bann's Johnny McKee and Jamie Wright, and, at the other end of the spectrum, fellow Ulsterman Michael Watt won his 200th cap, only the third to do so behind Ronan Gormley and Eugene Magee.
The second game involving Ireland and Spain takes place tomorrow (11am) and then it's back home later that evening - too late for players to take part in their respective clubs' final preparations for the cup.
It's particularly crucial for Garvey, who are out to avoid defeat as it would be the first time in many decades that they have lost three games on the trot.
It's hard to believe that the Blues find themselves in this position, but back-to-back Irish Hockey League defeats to Banbridge and Glenanne means the pressure is on as they take on Dublin giants Monkstown in Saturday's second round tie - a repeat of last year's final.
Coach Lutton is refusing to press the panic button, though, as his men are actually playing very well without getting the results of last season when they went through the entire programme with just two defeats.
But the difference is that they no longer have two Irish international strikers in their attack - Watt is back playing in England and Timmy Cockram hasn't featured since the Rio Olympics.
Garvey don't need reminding that their only two defeats last season both came at the hands of the Dubliners, at home in the IHL and at the National Hockey Stadium in Dublin in the Irish Senior Cup final.
However, they'll take some inspiration from the fact that Monkstown are also down two Irish international strikers this term, with Jonny Bruton now player/coach at Corinthian and Peter Caruth now player/coach at Annadale.
There's a definite Ulster winner when Belfast rivals Annadale and Instonians meet head-on at Lough Moss, with the Dale top of the Ulster Premier League and Inst bottom of the IHL.
And Banbridge should edge through against Three Rock Rovers, and they have home advantage. They should be joined in the hat by Cookstown, who are favourites to beat Dublin University despite the cross-border trip, but Mossley will have it tough against Railway Union at home.
There are just three games in a curtailed Ulster Premier League programme due to the cup.