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Kilkeel are facing conscience crisis ahead of play-offs

By Graham Hamilton

Kilkeel are to make a decision soon as to whether they will take up the offer to play in next month's EY Irish Hockey League provincial play-offs from which they can qualify for next season's all-Ireland competition.

The Mourne club are guaranteed a top-two finish in the Ulster Premier League with two games to play, and so will be eligible for the first phase of the play-offs in Dublin if they finish runners-up, or the second phase in Cork if they are crowned champions for the first time in their history.

Normally any club qualifying for the play-offs take up the offer, but Kilkeel have been reluctant to play on Sundays, and that is what would happen for both phases of the play-offs and, indeed, the Irish Hockey League and possibly the new Irish Hockey League 2 series next season.

In many ways it's a crisis of conscience for the Mourne club.

They are enjoying their most successful season having already landed the Kirk Cup and with an Ulster Premier League title a strong possibility, but yet they guard their 'never on a Sunday' stance.

If they decline the offer, then they would remain outside of the all-Ireland set-ups next season and continue solely as a provincial club in Ulster.

Club officials are reluctant to talk about the situation but agree a decision has to be made soon to meet the deadline or to give the fourth-placed club - probably Mossley - the opportunity to take their place.

The first phase of the play-offs, involving the second and third-placed finishers in Ulster and Leinster and the second-placed finisher in Munster, takes a round-robin format and is scheduled for April 8-9 at Old Alex's ground in Dublin.

The winner then joins the champions from Ulster, Leinster and Munster for the second phase of the play-offs in Cork from April 28-29, with the semi-finals at C of I's Garryduff ground and the final at UCC.

Kilkeel's first priority, though, is to win tomorrow evening's game against Belfast Harlequins, which would leave them one point behind leaders Bangor, who they have still to play at the Mourne venue in what would be a title decider.

Bangor remain a threat in that they have the Linden Cup under their belts, reached the Irish Hockey Trophy semi-finals and have a prolific marksman in Ryan Burgess who is on 28 goals this season already.

But Kilkeel also have firepower - they are the league's top goalscorers, with David Finlay, David Rae, William Annett, Eddie Agnew, Luke Russell and Jonathan Aiken all high up the charts, and are led by inspirational skipper Mark Stevenson.

Meanwhile, the weekend's domestic programme is curtailed due to Easter, but Three Rock Rovers are off to Rotterdam for the EuroHockey League KO16 where they face St Germain.

The Irish Under-21s will take on their English counterparts three times this week at Pembroke's ground in Dublin - this evening (8pm), Friday (11am) and Saturday (10.30am).

The Irish Under-18s have landed in South Africa where they will take in warm-weather training and a handful of games against club teams.

Eight Ulster players are included in the 23-strong panel, five of whom played in the recent Burney Cup final - Matthew Milliken, Andrew Edgar and Oliver Kidd from Friends, and Sullivan Upper's Harry Morris and Fergus Gibson. The others are Banbridge Academy's Mark Barlow and Scott Dale and Cookstown High's Jack Haycock.

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