WOMEN’S HOCKEY: Ulster Elks and Pegasus out to deny Hermes in Champions Trophy

Ulster Elks face Hermes in the Champions Trophy semi-finals
Ulster Elks face Hermes in the Champions Trophy semi-finals

Hermes will look to add the EY Champions Trophy crown, and the title of national champions, as the side to beat as the inaugural women’s EY Hockey League reaches its thrilling finale next weekend at Havelock Park, Banbridge.

They will play Irish Senior Cup champions Ulster Elks on Saturday afternoon while reigning national champs Pegasus meet Railway Union in the other semi-final, all battling for a place in Sunday’s final where the victors will be crowned.

Hermes go into the competition as the clear favourites following a dominant regular season campaign, winning the regular season title and a European place with four games remaining.

At that stage, Rudi Wortmann’s side had won 13 out of 14 games, a 3-3 tie in round 13 against Pegasus. After that, Hermes eased off the gas, losing to mid-table Pembroke and drawing with Cork Harlequins before getting back up to speed with 12 goals in their last two games.

Seven of those came away against their semi-final opponents Ulster Elks at Jordanstown in mid-March and they will be hoping for a repeat performance of that 7-0 demolition.

They Dubliners have strength in virtually every quarter, starting with captain Emma Gray – Ireland’s most capped goalkeeper – to Sarah Greene and Christine Quinlan at the back.

Suzie Kelly, Ellen Curran and Amber Barnwell bring energy and youth to their line-up but it is their front two lines which is truly breathtaking. Irish strikers Anna O’Flanagan, Nikki Evans and Naomi Carroll have scored a massive 56 goals between them.

Behind them, Chloe Watkins has scored 14 goals from midfield, giving them a corner threat into the bargain. Watkins, O’Flanagan and Evans missed the last game of the regular season in the wake of the Hawkes Bay Cup in New Zealand with Ireland but they should be back to play their part.

Sally Campbell, Eimear Horan and recently capped Sinead Loughran mean there are options and rotations galore to work with.

As such, the Elks would look to have it all to do but, in the past two seasons, they have shown a major love for knock-out competitions. It has led them to the Irish Senior Cup two years in a row, qualifying for the Champions Trophy this season by virtue of their final shoot-out win over Ards last month.

Irish captain Megan Frazer is pivotal to their chances, her sublime individual skills and vision meaning they will be a threat from many angles. Gemma Frazer is another leading light if back in the fray – she missed the ISC final – while underage international Jessica McMaster provides plenty of goals.

Jordan Page’s overlapping runs from right back and Canadian Anna Kozniuk is a combative presence. But they could miss the hugely experienced Shirley McCay, with over 200 Irish caps to her name, due to a broken thumb. She provides a lot of their momentum with her array of long-range passes from the flanks.

She sustained a broken thumb in New Zealand and, with the short turnaround time, will struggle to be back in time for the semi-final.

As such, it will be a monumental task but Elks like to defy odds and will put it up to Hermes at every turn.

Railway Union face last year’s Irish Hockey League champions Pegasus in the first semi-final at 10.30am hoping they can repeat their pair of 1-0 league victories from the regular season.

Pegasus ended that phase of the competition in second place, overcoming a ropey start to the campaign to surge up the table. Indeed, it took them until day five of the season before they registered their first win of the campaign.

They subsequently won 10 more games from their next 13 but their only two losses in that run both came against Saturday’s opponent. As such, Arlene Boyles will hope to use the video from those ties to find a way to break through the Railway defence.

Their attacking triangle of Suzanne Ferris, Vanessa Surgeoner and Alex Speers – all internationals at some stage in their careers – have combined for 33 goals during the campaign, all hitting double figures.

Kate McConnell in midfield, Pamela Glass in defence and Sammy-Jo Greer in goal give Pegasus a very strong spine to their side.

But they have found Emer Lucey, Orla Fox and Grace O’Flanagan impossible to get past in two hours of hockey this season. They are among the experienced part of Railway’s side, dovetailing nicely with a large youthful element.

Carey twins Niamh and Michelle have made a big impact this season in their attacking lines, using their pace and understanding to create a number of goals this season.

Emma Smyth, in midfield, will as always be pivotal to their chances and could well have a quality battle with Pegasus’s Steph Thompson.

Former international Kate Dillon has been in and out of the side this season due to external commitments but is another who could make an impact. Kate McKenna and Cecelia Joyce also bolster the panel having played with the Irish women’s cricket team in the T20 World Cup in India.

Railway come into the tie with three wins and three losses in their last six games while Pegasus’s form is much the stronger. Whether that holds true or Railway can continue their hoodoo over the northern side is anybody’s guess.

It then all leads to Sunday’s final at 2.45pm at the same venue where the first champion of the brand new EY Hockey League will be crowned.

Earlier on Sunday, there will be also be the battle for the final place in next season’s EYHL when UCC face Belfast Harlequins in the ninth place/runners-up battle promotion-relegation tussle.