Under 21 squad boosted by return of ‘overseas’ stars

Lucy McKee
Lucy McKee

The so-called ‘brain drain’ has deprived the Premier League of almost 20 players this season but many of them are back in harness for this weekend’s Under 21 inter-pro series in Dublin.

That’s good news for coach Ali McNeill and Ulster hockey followers who will be hoping it’s not so good for the other teams at Grange Road.

But the defection of players to other parts of the United Kingdom and further afield has brought it’s own set of problems for the coach.

Several players including the Barr twins, Chloe and Serena formerly of Lurgan, have flown home from America at their own expense for the series at Grange Road.

Others like Zara Thom, Harlequins leading scorer last season and now playing for Hightown near Liverpool, have travelled fewer miles.

Lucy McKee topped the charts for Lurgan last term but she is now playing for English Premiership side Clifton.

The fact that around half of the 18-strong panel are based outside Ulster has not been ideal but Ulster appear to have a very strong squad and will justifiably be favourites to retain their title.

“Our training has been a litle fragmented due to the fact so many players aren’t at home and obviously you can’t expect them to travel every weekend.” said McNeill.

“But you just have to get on with it and we have trained as best we can in the circumstances.”

Looking at the talent on display this weekend, if all goes to plan it will be difficult to see any of the other provinces stopping Ulster.

The holders look especially strong up front where McKee will be joined by two Ireland senior internationals in the shape of Katie Mullan and Chloe Brown.

But McNeill won’t be taking anything for granted in the three match series which begins this evening with a game against Connacht followed by matches against Munster and Leinster on subsequent days.

“On paper we have a strong squad but all the players will need to gel together as a unit and it’s always difficult to know what we will be up against at this level.” she added.

“Leinster could be our biggest threat but Munster and Connacht have given us problems in the past so none of the teams is going to be easy.”

It will be important that Ulster get off to a winning start later today and continue in the same vein tomorrow to set up what could well be a title decider against their Leinster hosts on Sunday.

At domestic level there are just three Premier League games down for decision due to the inter-pros and it’s last chance saloon for Armagh who face Harlequins at Ardmore in a vitally important game for both teams.

Only a win will be enough to prevent the home team from being relegated while ‘Quins are by no means safe themselves and also are in dire need of the points.

At the other end of the table, leaders Ards can stretch their lead over Pegasus to four points if they beat Lisnagarvey at Comber Road.

The Ulster Elks will be hoping to bounce back from last week’s Irish Senior Cup defeat by Lurgan when they take on Randalstown at the Antrim Forum.