Wallace boys get help from the stars
Wallace High have received a helping hand from three world class players as they bid to turn the tables on old rivals and current all-Ireland champions Banbridge Academy when the two meet in the McCullough Cup semi-final at Lisnagarvey this afternoon (1.30pm).
The Lisburn lads are not long home from the school's hockey trip to the Netherlands and while there they received specialist coaching from Argentina's prolific goalscorer Gonzalo Peillat, New Zealand's three-time Olympian Phil Burrows and Great Britain's Ben Arnold.
That was unquestionably the highlight of the trip, although the 18-strong squad led by Garth Kidd, Neal McKnight and David Simpson took in two top matches and also played against Rotterdam's youth sides.
Peillat, who featured for the Argentines when they played Ireland earlier this year and was the top scorer in the 2014 World Cup finals, is lethal at drag-flick penalty corners and he took time out to coach Wallace's Matthew Nelson and Andrew O'Hare on a one-to-one basis.
Wallace captain Nelson said on his return: "It was brilliant to get the chance to visit one of the top hockey nations in the world, playing and watching top class players.
"Getting the opportunity to be coached by international superstars was unbelievable and getting personal coaching from Gonzalo can only help myself and Andrew with our drag flicking ahead of the semi-final."
Burrows, who has been capped almost 350 times by New Zealand, and GB star Arnold concentrated on showing the Wallace players the different ways to shoot when inside the circle.
The last-four tie is a repeat of last season's decider which Banbridge won 2-1, thanks to two goals from Johnny McKee, but with a handful of last year's squad available - including Nelson, O'Hara, Scott McCabe, Craig Getty, Jordan Taggart and Jacob Hermon - there is a reasonable chance Wallace can wreak some revenge over an Academy side who are still on a high after their all-Ireland success.
The second semi-final, also at Garvey but with a 3pm start, sees Sullivan Upper and Friends square up.
Sullivan were fancied in the recent all-Irelands but bowed out earlier than anticipated and the Holywood school is out to make amends, although they know that Friends are keen to make the final in the hope that it could end up an all-Lisburn affair.
Meanwhile, the EY Irish Hockey League is back on Saturday after a two-week break for the under-age inter-pros and Irish Senior Cup, and the four Ulster sides are pitted against each other.
But fans won't be able to take in both - the Banbridge and Cookstown game starts at 4.15pm with the Lisnagarvey and Annadale clash at 5pm.
Bann and Garvey may be favourites to win as they bid to keep pace with leaders Monkstown, but the Tyrone side and Dale are anxious to get some points on the scoreboard soon to pull away from the foot of the table.