Ulster to pull plug on inter-provincial title defences
Ulster's Under-21 men and women will NOT be defending their titles in the forthcoming inter-provincial tournaments.
The province went head-to-head with the governing body last season over the introduction of the fully-fledged Irish Hockey League but stress this had no bearing on the decision to pull their teams from the Under-21 competitions.
Normally inter-provincials are staged over a weekend, but the early suggestion this season was to have one set of games in the Autumn and the remaining two sets of games around May or June - a bit farcical considering the logistics and costs of preparing the players for two occasions instead of one.
The governing body, struggling to find free weekends due to a tight calendar this season, finally recommended staging the tournaments over consecutive Sundays, on November 29 and December 6.
But this still didn't address the issue of having to bring over quite a number of cross-channel students twice instead of once nor the fact that the two or three week notice was insufficient to prepare the squads.
And with the bulk of the players currently featuring at senior level, it would have meant them playing in the Irish Senior Cup on November 28 to be followed by an inter-provincial game 24 hours later, and then - worse still - playing in the Irish Hockey League on December 5 to be followed by two inter-provincial games 24 hours later.
Ulster Hockey felt there was still no option but to decline but were willing to consider a counter-proposal.
However, the governing body has decided to go ahead without Ulster and the Irish U18s will be featuring alongside the other provinces.
"Ulster has put a lot of effort into our talent development and we are very disappointed that we have had to make this decision, but it is in the best interests of hockey in the province," insists management board chairman Barry Feeney.
"The U21s are an important part of Ulster and Irish hockey but the proposed formats were devaluing rather than showcasing the tournaments.
"We support the inter-provincials at all levels, and nothing has changed on that.
"We will move forward in hope, and have talks with the other branches and the governing body to try sort things out for future years."
Meanwhile, there are no EY Irish Hockey League games this weekend due to the U16 and U18 inter-provincial championships being staged in Cork.
Coach Shirley McCay has a strong Ulster U18 squad and will be looking to break Leinster's four-year dominance of the competition.
Wallace High's Matthew Nelson, Scott McCabe and Andrew O'Hare, Banbridge Academy's Jake Rowe and Sullivan Upper's Callum Robson are all potential matchwinners while goalkeeper Luke Roleston (Banbridge Academy) is a superb last line of defence.
U16 coach Richard Fairman is urging his players to make it four in a row titles for the province but it won't be easy in the deep south with both Munster and Leinster out to put a spanner in the works.
There's a full Ulster Premier League programme, with the two big games seeing the four main contenders in action - current leaders Instonians go to Belfast Harlequins and Kilkeel go to Civil Service.
The Linden Cup semi-final double-header takes place on Sunday at Deramore with Campbellians and Cliftonville on first (1.30pm), followed by Bangor and Queen's (3.30pm).