How Ulster could have up to six clubs in the top IHL division next season
The business end of the domestic and national season is upon us and over the next three weeks we'll have a better indication of where Ulster's top clubs will be featuring next campaign.
The current EY Irish Hockey League will be joined by the new IHL2 series, and that means a probable restructuring of the provincial set-up, but who will be playing where will gradually unfold between now and the first week in May.
At the moment Ulster has four teams in the IHL but the remaining few games of this season and the completion of the Provincial Play-offs could change all that.
The outcome remains uncertain - the province could be reduced to three in the top flight, it could remain at the status quo of four, and even five out of the 10 teams remains a possibility.
But, believe it or not, there is an outside chance of Ulster supplying six teams in the IHL, although it must be said that the odds are against that happening.
At the moment, Lisnagarvey and Banbridge are guaranteed their IHL places next season due to high finishing positions.
Annadale's player/coach Peter Caruth knows his team need one point from home clashes against Lisnagarvey this Saturday and Monkstown next Saturday to be certain of retaining their place, although if Cookstown fail to win two of their final three games, the Dale's position would be safe regardless.
Cookstown lie second bottom and are hoping Railway Union make little progress at home to Pembroke and away to Garvey, so that they would be relegated.
But Cookstown haven't given up hope of overtaking either Annadale or Cork C of I, although they'll need a few more goals from Stuart Smyth in their run-in which includes a home tie with Banbridge on Saturday followed by a trip to Pembroke on Sunday, with their final game away to Three Rock a week later.
If Cookstown don't overtake Annadale or Cork, but stay above Railway by finishing ninth, then they'll go into a play-off against the runners-up from the Provincial Play-Off finals in a bid to preserve their IHL status.
Cookstown could yet survive and keep Ulster's quota at four, and that number could climb to five if either Instonians or Bangor win the Provincial Play-off final on April 29.
But what is the scenario that could see Ulster's representation climb to a remarkable six?
Firstly, Annadale need to survive by finishing seventh and Cookstown must overtake Cork C of I to finish eighth.
Then, both Instonians and Bangor need to reach the Provincial Play-Off final, with the winner getting promotion and the runners-up winning the play-off against the IHL's ninth-placed finisher, which would have to be Cork.
That would leave six from Ulster, four from Leinster and none from Munster, hardly a good all-Ireland representation - but the odds are against this happening. However, we await developments.
This weekend sees two all-Ulster affairs with a lot at stake for everyone - Cookstown against Banbridge and Annadale against Lisnagarvey on Saturday.
Cookstown's visit to Pembroke on Sunday is also crucial, as is the outcome of Railway's game against Pembroke and Cork's clash against Three Rock.
Finally, the Anderson Cup gets under way this week, with one first round tie tomorrow evening and the remaining three on Saturday afternoon, with the winners going into the quarter-finals alongside the Premier League's top four teams.
Kilkeel to enter IHL2
Kilkeel are set to take their place in the new Irish Hockey League 2 next season, despite turning down the chance to take part in the Provincial Play-Offs.
The Provincial Play-Offs only decides entry into the IHL’s top flight whereas league positions dictate who gets into the IHL2 and, as Ulster champions, the Mourne club will be offered a place, which they have indicated they would take.
With just three IHL2 places available to Ulster, a lot will hinge on whether Cookstown are relegated. If they are, then the first two places would go to Cookstown and Kilkeel, with Bangor, Instonians and Mossley next in the pecking order but just one getting the nod.
All eyes will be on Cookstown’s survival bid and the Provincial Play-Offs involving Bangor and Instonians to see who ends up in IHL1, IHL2 or the Ulster Premier League.