The inaugural men’s EY Hockey League season reaches its climax this weekend with the Champions Trophy at Havelock Park where the new all-Ireland champion will be decided.
Saturday pits Lisnagarvey against Pembroke at 3pm before hosts Banbridge meet Monkstown at 5pm in a bid to reach Sunday’s final showdown.
There, the winner will be crowned, taking Ireland’s number one European qualification spot for 2017 with it.
Lisnagarvey come into the weekend off the back of an immaculate 16-game winning streak in the EY Hockey League regular season, winning the competition at a 16-point canter.
The breadth of their talent base has been crucial. This is typified in the goalscoring charts with seven players scoring six or more times during the season.
Timmy Cockram leads the way with 14 to his name with Sean Murray from midfield also hitting double figures. Daniel Buser, Andy Williamson and Neal Glassey have all chipped in while Mikey Watt, despite only joining the club from English side Surbiton in December, has given them an extra dimension in attack with nine goals already.
Defensively, the line-up is particularly solid with Ireland international Paul Gleghorne a pivotal man with his teak-tough tackling next to skipper Jonny Bell. They set the pace in motion while the former’s ability to launch long overheads into the forward lines.
It makes for a multi-faceted line-up who have been the standard-bearers this season. They will be smarting, though, from missing out on the Irish Senior Cup crown in the final, succumbing to a late sucker-punch from Monkstown to draw 2-2 in normal time before losing a penalty shoot-out.
They face who a Pembroke side in Saturday’s semi-final. The Dubliners were rank outsiders to reach the top four at the winter break as they sat eighth in the table, just a couple of points clear of relegation trouble.
While others faltered, though, they moved on up with wins over Cookstown and Glenanne to get their run started. And they closed the campaign with 10 points out of 12 to move into the top four for the first time on the final day of the season thanks to a 3-2 win over Cork C of I.
During that run, they also claimed the Leinster Senior Cup thanks to a 4-1 win over Corinthian on St Patrick’s Day. They will be at close to full strength though Patrick Shanahan has emigrated and Patrick Good missed the latter part of the league.
The key-line is the link between international duo Kirk Shimmins and Alan Sothern with the latter providing 21 goals, over 50% of their output, making him the second highest in the regular season behind Glenanne’s Shannon Boucher. His drag-flicks and quick hands in tight spaces in the circle make him a constant threat when the sniff of a score is about.
Karl Lynch and Ronan Flannery’s driving runs down the flanks are another feature, attacking the baselines. They tend to be involved in high scoring games with their open style – seven of their fixtures have been settled on 3-2 scorelines, losing twice to Lisnagarvey by that margin.
Goalkeeper Mark Ingram will need to be on top form, along with Keith O’Hare, Adam Pritchard and Harry Spain if they are to repel the Garvey charge.
Home hosts Banbridge face Monkstown in the second semi-final at 5pm with the former hoping to finally get one over the sky-blues. This is a repeat of the last three Irish Hockey League finals with Monkstown winning all three deciders.
Both of their meetings this season have ended in 1-1 draws, showing there is precious little between the two sides. Town have been a little bit off the boil in the regular season by their usual high standards, winning just 10 of 18 games in finishing second overall.
They showed their hunger for glory, though, in the Irish Senior Cup final when they snatched a shoot-out victory from the first against Lisnagarvey. Despite boasting an array of attacking options, their defence has been the key element this season with Richard Sykes, Ziggy Agnew and David Cole controlling the backline.
The sky blues have the most miserly defence, conceding just 23. Up front, Irish internationals Gareth Watkins, Jonny Bruton, Kyle Good and Davy Carson provide a wealth of options while Peter Caruth, if fit, can be yet another. Captain Stephen Cole and younger brother Lee, on the left side, pull the strings in midfield.
Banbridge have had a similarly staccato regular season with nine wins from 18, enough to comfortably make the playoffs in third place.
Stevie Dowds leads their line and while he has not hit the massive heights of last season, his 17 goals in the league mark him out as a chief threat alongside the effervescent Eugene Magee, a man of over 200 Irish caps.
Philip Brown has made a welcome return to the Bann line-up after a lengthy absence while there are plenty of top performers in the panel like Bruce McCandless, Owen Magee and Jonny McKee.
Matthew Bell has grown steadily in the past two seasons to be a real leader in defence while the towering goalkeeper Gareth Lennox has been a key addition since returning from a mid-season injury.
It will tight and tough to pick a winner but Bann will hope to be spurred on by their usual, vociferous home support, bedecked in red, yellow and black.
Also on Sunday, the final place in next season’s EY Hockey League will be confirmed as Cookstown take on UCD in the ninth place/runner-up decider with the former bidding to avoid the drop with UCD hopeful to move up.