Ulster’s Under-18 girls will be hoping to emulate their magnificent UK School Games gold medal finish when they attempt to retain their inter-provincial crown in Dublin this weekend.
The province’s U16s will be aiming to improve on their third place at last year’s tournament when they head for Grange Road.
U18 coach Robbie McMinn says that while winning the School Games came as a timely boost, the inter-pros are a different ball game.
“Confidence in the camp is high but we are not getting carried away about the inter-pros despite winning gold in Lougborough,” Robbie said.
“The tournaments have a different dynamic in that you don’t know anything apart from what you see at UKSG as you don’t come into contact with the opposition players really.
“In contrast at the inter-pros, the girls are playing against girls they know and have played with perhaps for Ireland and against, say in the U16 inter-pros, Kate Russell or club in Irish competition.
“But I am very happy with the squad that I have. The girls who went to Loughborough played their way into the Ulster set-up with their individual and team performances.
“Poor performance there would have opened the door for the reserves that we have used.
“There is good flexibility with several players able to play in two lines and that can undertake roles in penalty corner attack and defence,” he added.
“Most of them are playing 1st XI club hockey in the Ulster Premier League or EYHL as well as being the lead players in their school teams, and their exposure to this could be important for us. We also have eight girls back from last season’s inter-pros.
“We hope to win the tournament but we want to go and compete well and see what happens by playing in a similar manner to the UKSG- if we do that but don’t win, then so be it.
“We are under no illusions that it will be a tough three days against good opposition and no doubt the tournament will be in the balance until the final day.”
Included in Robbie’s squad is Ballymoney’s Olivia Mullan, sister of Ireland senior captain Katie and she says Ulster will hope to draw inspiration from the national team’s silver medal heroics at the World Cup.
“We had the UK School Games just after the World Cup and we were so inspired by watching Ireland that I’m pretty sure it helped us win the gold medals,” said Olivia.
“We played so much better than ever before and we were just so excited going into the tournament in Loughborough because of what Ireland achieved.
“Hopefully, the experience will stand us in good stead in Dublin particularly as none of the other provinces will have had that sort of competitive preparation.”
Ulster U16 coach Joel Cathcart and his players might not have had the UK School Games to prepare for the inter-pros but they have been busy in the build up which started back In April.
“We began with a wider development squad before that was reduced to a smaller squad for a tournament in Holland in May and a Scotland test series in June,” Joel explained.
“Competition was high for places and made selection difficult for the coaches and both these events provided major learning opportunities and allowed us as coaches to begin developing and introducing the girls to a high performance environment.
“In August the girls played a home test series against UK Lions which again provided a great experience that was shaped into what a inter-provincial tournament would look like in terms of match format.
“As a coaching group we feel these experiences have been vital and have allowed the girls to adapt to an environment that they would not normally be usde to.
“It is hard to adapt to an environment if they have not been exposed to it and we hope that these experiences will stand the group well this weekend.
“Overall, we will have played 22 matches prior to this years inter-pros and we hope this will help us for the forthcoming weekend.
“The commitment of not only the players but the parents has been exceptional and hopefully the reward for this will be evident this weekend.
“For the players this is a chance for the them to showcase the hard work they have put in over the last 6 months.
“The tournament is not going to be easy and the girls know that; four matches in three days is tough but our preparation hopefully has prepared us for the environment and tests that lie ahead.”