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Can Ulster earn five top tier IHL places for next season?


By Graham Hamilton

Three Ulster teams - Cookstown, Bangor and Instonians - face a crucial weekend as they attempt to secure EY Irish Hockey League status for next season.

Lisnagarvey, Banbridge and Annadale are already assured of top-flight places but the outcome of a handful of crucial games being staged in Cork, Dublin and Hillsborough will determine whether that number stays at three or rises to four or even five.

At one stage six was a possibility, but Cookstown's heavy defeats against Banbridge (5-0) and Pembroke Wanderers (7-2) last weekend put paid to that.

Instead, Cookstown are hoping for a favourable outcome on Saturday that will see them avoid automatic relegation to the new IHL2 and give them a second chance of survival in a play-off against the provincial play-off runners-up.

It's highly likely that the Tyrone club won't get the positive result they need in their final IHL game at runners-up Three Rock - the Dubliners have already beaten them 4-1 in the league and 5-2 in the cup.

And so they'll be keeping a close ear to the ground for any news from Lisnagarvey, who face current bottom team Railway Union at Hillsborough.

Garvey are already assured of third place and are favourites to open the trapdoor and send the Dublin side down to the IHL2.

The Blues haven't been as dominant at their home base this season and lost to both Three Rock and Glenanne as well as drawing with Cookstown and Pembroke but, with the Irish Champions Trophy play-offs just around the corner, coach Errol Lutton will be demanding a positive result to boost confidence.

If Cookstown survive, which they should, then their attention turns to Sunday's provincial play-off final, as it will be the losers that they face in the promotion/relegation play-off over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

Bangor aim to take revenge on the Bandon team that beat them in the Irish Hockey Trophy while Instonians need to beat Dublin YMCA to keep alive their bid to regain top-flight status.

Bangor certainly have the firepower, with Ryan Burgess on 28 goals already and Rhys Cunningham and David McClune on 15, and confidence is high after winning the Linden Cup and finishing runners-up in the Ulster Premier League.

Instonians can't be ruled out either - they showed their credentials by winning the wildcard play-offs despite Dane Ward and Chris Barnes being ineligible.

It's also a vital weekend for Mossley - they could get a place in the IHL2 along with Kilkeel as Ulster's third representative, providing either Bangor or Inst make it to the top-flight.

Meanwhile, Ulster Hockey's Youth division has secured a lucrative three-year deal with business advisory firm BDO Northern Ireland, which will provide support to the girls' McCloy Cup, boys' Pearson Cup and the Under-15 and Under-18 Indoor competitions.

The McCloy and Pearson competitions attracted 200 schools, with Armstrong Primary landing the girls' trophy last Wednesday and Inchmarlo retaining the boys' trophy last Friday.

Laura Jackson, partner at BDO, said: "Hockey is a leading sport here and its participation at youth level is growing rapidly, with 250 youth teams, 200 primary schools and 80 secondary schools, and it is important to support this, which is why we have become a partner."

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