Ulster set to host World League Series with Ireland as top seeds
International hockey is finally returning north of the border with Ulster set to host its first world ranking tournament in March - the men's World League 2 Series.
Hot on the heels of Banbridge's huge success in hosting the EuroHockey League tournament last weekend comes the news that eight international teams, including Ireland, will be coming for the series which is part of the qualifying route to the World Cup finals.
Only yesterday did the Telegraph suggest that Hockey Ireland, having been given the go-ahead to host one of the three WHL 2 tournaments, should consider staging it north of the border instead of at its customary Dublin base.
Now it has been confirmed it will take place in Ulster from March 11-19 and that the competing teams will be France, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Scotland, Austria and Wales, as well as the Green Machine.
But, although the venue has yet to be named, it's almost certain to take place at Lisnagarvey, with Stormont's Playball arena or Banbridge as other possibilities.
This is great news, not just for the province, but also for the Irish team who are ranked highest of the nations and therefore should finish in the top two places to go forward to the WHL semi-finals which, in turn, leads to qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals in India.
The Irish are ranked 10th in the world after reaching the Rio Olympics, and are likely to be pooled with Austria (22), Ukraine (27) and Wales (36) with France (17), Poland (19), Scotland (28) and Italy (35) in the other pool, but this has to be verified.
The other two men's WHL 2 tournaments will be staged in Dhaka from March 4-12 and hosts Bangladesh will be joined by Canada, Oman, Egypt, China, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Fiji, and also Tunapuna from March 25 to April 2 where hosts Trinidad and Tobago will welcome Malaysia, Japan, Russia, USA, Barbados, Chile and Switzerland.
The Irish women, ranked 16th, must head to Kuala Lumpur from January 14-22 along with Italy (15), Malaysia (21), Wales (30), Kazakhstan (31), Thailand (35), Singapore (44), and Fiji (59).
But, as second seeds, they should progress to the WHL semi-finals too.
Coach Graham Shaw has already lined up games away to Belgium later this month and in Scotland early in November to begin the build-up.
The other two women's WHL 2 tournaments will be staged in Valencia from February 4-12 with hosts Spain being joined by Scotland, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Ghana and one more to be confirmed, and in Vancouver from April 1-9 where hosts Canada will be joined by India, Belarus, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Chile and France.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 kids will be taking part in Ulster Hockey's Under 11 and Under 13 blitz competitions this weekend.
The girls series is scheduled for Sunday - at Belfast Harlequins, Coleraine, Mossley, North Down and Lisnagarvey - while the boys also feature on Sunday at Civil Service, Ballymena and Ballynahinch.
Altogether there are 190 teams taking part in what is the first blitz of the season in the youth programme organised by Ulster Hockey youth development officer Andrew Brown.
Virtually all Ulster clubs will be represented in what will be a fun-filled day, and it's encouraging that a record number of kids will be taking part.