World-class teams await Fulton's lads in Malaysia series
Ireland now know their opposition in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia in two months time and it promises to be a high-powered tournament.
Craig Fulton's lads fly out to Ipoh in Malaysia at the end of February for the series which runs from March 3-11 and involves six nations currently in the top 12 in the world.
Although details have not been officially released yet, we can reveal the Green Machine will be facing World Cup champions Australia, World League champions Argentina, Asian champions India, current Azlan Shah champions England and hosts Malaysia.
That's high-quality opposition indeed but Fulton sees it as a chance to learn from the best teams in the world before they end up facing some of them in the World Cup finals scheduled for India in December.
A handful of those nations involved will be using the high-profile series to finish off their preparations for the Commonwealth Games which take place in Australia's Gold Coast in April, whereas the Irish are really only starting their build-up for the World Cup which is still many months away.
Fulton, who was part of a delegation that visited Tokyo on an Olympic venue tour earlier this month, has training camps arranged ahead of the Malaysian trip.
This includes a week in Spain from January 27 to February 4, and squads for both trips will be chosen in due course.
As usual, Ulster are likely to account for around eight players in the squads, with Lisnagarvey expected to supply a handful including midfielder Sean Murray who is having an outstanding season to date.
Meanwhile the EY Irish Hockey League resumes after its winter break with the four Ulster clubs all having crucial games on Saturday.
There's an Ulster derby at Strathearn where Annadale and Banbridge square up, with Bann wanting to start the new year on a winning note after what had been a disappointing end to 2017.
They find themselves in the bottom three when many expected them to be in the top three, but there are plenty of games to put that right.
However, a trip to mid-table Annadale isn't the easiest of starts after five weeks of inaction.
Second bottom Cookstown have a chance of climbing out of the trouble zone when they take on a Cork C of I team who have the leakiest defence in the IHL, having conceded 32 in their ten games to date.
Lisnagarvey have no relegation worries but they need to beat visiting Pembroke Wanderers if they are to stay in touch with top two Glenanne and Three Rock Rovers.
In fact they have a chance of narrowing the leeway,= as the Dublin rivals meet each other and so one or both will drop points.
The three top teams in the Ulster Premier League - Instonians, Bangor and Kilkeel - all have difficult away games as they try to open a gap on the other main challengers, Mossley, North Down and Belfast Harlequins.
Inst go to Harlequins with a 12.45pm start; the Seasiders go to Newry Olympic, and the Mournemen head to Civil Service.