Ireland set to join Sultans of swing on Malaysia trip
Ireland will wing their way to Malaysia in March after being invited to take part in the prestigious Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
It's the first time the Green Machine has been asked to take part in the series, which is in its 35th year, and that underlines the respect Craig Fulton's lads now hold at international level.
Usually only the world's leading teams get invites, but the Irish are now established in the top-ten ranking list and their achievements in reaching the Rio Olympics, followed by qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals, make them a popular choice for such tournaments.
Ulster generally supply around half of the squad and Fulton will have been pleased to hear that his most capped player, Banbridge's Eugene Magee, is back in action after injury, while clubmate Johnny McKee (ankle) and Lisnagarvey's Paul Gleghorne (hip) are also expected to return, although maybe not for a few weeks yet.
He will also have been pleased to learn that former Instonians and Lisnagarvey striker Michael Watt scored four goals for his Hampstead and Westminster club at the weekend in their 7-0 success over Canterbury.
Great Britain won the last Shah series, beating then world champions Australia 4-3 in the final, and that means several more Ulster players will be making the trip to Kuala Lumpur as Ian Sloan, David Ames and Mark Gleghorne are all in their panel.
The Irish squad resume training after Christmas, and a Tri-Nation series in Spain, also including the Netherlands, is already lined up in January.
This means all these games will see the Irish take on teams who are ranked higher than them... just the sort of challenges that coach Fulton wants.
The world finals, which are scheduled for Bhubaneswar's Kalinga Stadium in India, don't take place until November next year but the Malaysian series will give the players an insight into the difficulties playing in Asian countries where the food and temperatures are so different.
Meanwhile, the EY Irish Hockey League's fourth round of fixtures is on Saturday, with Ulster giants Lisnagarvey and Banbridge heading to Dublin to maintain their unbeaten starts.
Bann face Monkstown while Garvey are at current champions Three Rock, and both are aware how difficult these leading Leinster teams are.
Ulster's two other IHL teams - Cookstown and Annadale - square up at the Tyrone venue with each harbouring hopes of a first league win of the season.
Instonians might well have revenge on their minds when they face Civil Service in the Ulster Premier League's top game - the Stormont side beat them 3-1 in the recent Kirk Cup pool phase.