Stormont gets green light to host hockey World series
Hockey fans north of the border are going to see much more of Ireland's international team than usual following the rubber-stamping of Stormont as the venue for the forthcoming World League 2 series, the penultimate stage for World Cup finals qualification.
Not only will they get the chance to see Craig Fulton's squad take part in the eight-nation series from March 11 to 19, but it's almost certain that the coach will have to switch some of the usual weekend training camps from Dublin to Belfast.
And maybe even arrange a four nation tournament to be held at Stormont prior to the big event to allow his players to get used to playing on the surface.
Normally any major tournaments being hosted by Hockey Ireland go to the national stadium at UCD in Dublin, but following Banbridge's excellent hosting of the EuroHockey League series in early October, the world's governing body had no hesitation in agreeing to Ulster taking on the arrangements this time.
It was a toss-up between Lisnagarvey and Civil Service but Stormont finally got the nod, with numerous hotels in Belfast to house the eight squads and all the umpires and officials.
Stormont was the venue for two Ireland games against Canada prior to Fulton's squad heading off to the Rio Olympics, and it has also staged one-day cricket internationals.
The first phase of the build-up begins on Tuesday and Thursday of next week when Fulton takes a 20-strong squad to Barcelona to face World No. 9 Spain in two games, the first at the Atletico Terrassa club and the second at Club Egara.
The coach, though, is taking just five of his Rio squad as he has decided to look at some of the young players who are making an impression.
However, he has taken some of the more experienced players, including Michael Watt, who is the most capped of the lot, goalkeeper David Harte and Paul Gleghorne, Jonathan Bell and Michael Robson who between them have over 700 caps.
The Green Machine needs to finish in the top two in this series at Stormont to guarantee a place in the final qualification process, but as the highest ranked team among the eight, there is every possibility.
And there is also a failsafe, as two of the highest ranking teams finishing third from the three World League 2 tournaments -the others are in Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Tacarigua (Trinidad & Tobago) - will go through too.
Ireland are currently ranked at an all-time high of 10 on the world ladder and the seven other nations coming to Belfast are France (17), Poland (19), Austria (21), Ukraine (26), Scotland (28), Wales (34) and Italy (36).
This means that it's likely that the Irish will be in a pool along with Austria, Ukraine and Italy, unless the world rankings change before the programme of matches is decided.