Rio shock as world body axes Olympic hockey play-offs
New regulations relating to the hockey events in the Olympic Games mean that Ireland men will need to finish at least fourth in their pool in Rio if they are to avoid an early trip home.
The International Hockey Federation has confirmed that, for the first time since the 1928 Games, there will be NO classification matches outside of the final and bronze medal play-off.
"The teams ranked in the last two positions in each pool will be eliminated from the competition and then the losers of the quarter-finals will also drop out of the competition," explained the governing body's Communications Manager Danny Parker.
In effect, that means Craig Fulton's squad's first objective is to finish in the top four of their pool - which won't be easy considering current Olympic champions Germany, World No. 2 Netherlands, World League semi-final runners-up Argentina and World No. 11 Spain are ranked above them, with only Canada below them.
Realistically that means they will need to beat Canada and get at least one positive result against a higher ranked team to prevent an early return.
And if they can reach the last eight they'll have to win that too in order to stay in medal contention. Otherwise it will be an immediate exit rather than the usual 5th to 8th play-offs.
It's believed the axing of all the classification games, apart from the final and third place play-off, is to lower costs for nations and to save on umpires, hotel beds and other expenses, but the news will come as a major disappointment for those who don't make the last four, as the number of games they play will be cut dramatically.
To finish in the last two in the pool phase will mean just five games instead of eight, while to lose in the quarter-finals will mean six games.
The Irish squad is currently in South Africa for a warm-weather training camp in Cape Town as the initial preparation for Rio.
They have already played Canada twice plus Spain and South Africa once. Today (6pm) and tomorrow afternoon (4pm) they will take on Canada twice more before completing their schedule with games against Belgium on Saturday and Sunday (both 12noon).
There are 12 Ulstermen in the training squad, including striker Michael Watt who recently returned from a spell in England to join Lisnagarvey.
Meanwhile Ulster Premier League leaders Instonians are all set to become the first ton-up club this season when they go to Civil Service on Saturday.
The Shaw's Bridge side have already scored 99 - 53 from 11 league games, nine in the Irish Senior Cup and 37 in the Kirk Cup - and now the race is on to see who will be the player to complete the magical century.
Two games are scheduled for Friday evening, the rest on Saturday. The big clash in the Senior League sees promotion rivals Bangor and Queen's meet head-on.