Ireland hockey stars step up their Olympics bid with Tests in Belfast
Hockey fans in Ulster don't often get the chance to see international games north of the border but that changes this week with the Irish ladies taking on their Italian counterparts in three Test games.
The Green Army take on Italy tomorrow at Mossley (7.30pm) and Saturday and Sunday at the University of Ulster campus in Jordanstown (2.00pm) as both prepare for the World League 3 series in June which will determine whether or not they qualify for the Rio Olympics.
Irish coach Darren Smith will be hoping for a clean sweep of victories over the next few days as his squad are riding on a crest of a wave following their World League 2 gold medal success last month and, of course, Italy are ranked lower on the world ladder.
"We are excited to have Italy in Belfast for this series as we both prepare for our respective tournaments in Spain and Belgium," says Smith.
"Italy play with skill and flair, which means the matches will be quality to watch and over the past two years we have played several times and each of these have been hard fought affairs."
Smith has named six Ulster girls in his squad - goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran (Pegasus), Lizzie Colvin (Loreto), Michelle Harvey (Leuven), Shirley McCay (Ulster Elks), Chloe Brown (Ards) and skipper Megan Frazer.
And one other connection is former Ulster and Ireland rugby star Gary Longwell who is now an established part of Smith's backroom staff.
There was only ever going to be one choice of sport for Longwell in his playing days but he is now revelling in his role as a Performance Skills coach at the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland (SINI), and he jumped at the chance to pass on his experience and expertise to the Irish squad when asked.
He will be on the sidelines over the next few days, although his part-time role with Ireland deals with the non-technical side of hockey and, as someone who graduated in Sports Psychology, he has plenty to offer on that front.
Longwell began his rugby career at Ballyclare High and hockey was never going to be an option for a man who stands 6ft 7in tall, but he has had an interest in the sport for many years.
"Because of the nature of my role with Ireland I haven't had any difficulty switching from rugby to hockey and there are many areas the two sports have in common," he said.
"For example, mental and physical preparation are important in any sport and I am there as a sounding-board for the players.
"If they find they are having problems fitting studies or work into their schedule then I can help with time-management issues because if you're having difficulties off the pitch then those will affect your performance on it."
Longwell played in both the professional and amateur eras during his rugby career and he says he admires the Irish coach and players immensely.
"The girls may be amateur in name but they are very professional in their approach and their commitment to their sport," he adds.
"I think the Irish captain Megan is a world class player and someone who is a great leader on and off the pitch and it's been a pleasure working with her and the rest of the girls."
THURSDAY - International: Ireland v Italy (Mossley, 7.30pm).
SATURDAY - International: Ireland v Italy (UU, 2pm).
Irish Junior Cup semi-final: Pembroke Wanderers II v Queen's II (Dublin, 1.30pm).
Qualifying Plate final: Raphoe v Randalstown II (Stormont, 3pm).
Intermediate Plate final: Bangor v Larne II (Stormont, 1pm).
Junior Plate final: Priorians II v Ballymoney III (Stormont, 2.30pm).
Minor Plate final: Malone v Banbridge IV (Stormont, 4pm).
SUNDAY: International: Ireland v Italy (UU, 2pm).