The Denman Ulster Shield semi-finals take pride of place in this weekend’s hockey schedule with two closely contested games anticipated at Stormont on Sunday.
Pegasus, who have won the trophy a record 28 times, tackle EYHL rivals Ards in the first tie at 1pm followed by the second match between Belfast Harlequins and Ulster Elks at 3pm. Several Ireland World Cup stars will be in action as their teams bid to reach the Boxing Day final – the highlight of the Ulster season when a four-figure crowd is expected. This year, the Denman Shield final will take place at Lisnagarvey’s Comber Road headquarters and will be followed by the men’s Kirk Cup decider between Banbridge and Annadale.
Ireland’s most-capped player Shirley McCay – Ulster Hockey’s talent coach – will be among the World Cup silver medallists taking part as Pegasus bid to overcome Ards in the first semi-final. She has fond memories of being a Denman Ulster Shield winner before – ironically playing against her present club – and she still treasures the memento she received after the game.
“I last played in the Shield final for Randalstown in 2006/2007, we beat Pegasus 4-1 and I scored and still have my little plaque,” she recalled.
“It is a really important event in the Ulster Hockey calendar, the Shield is steeped in history dating back to 1896. It’s a special competition which I am delighted to be a part of once again. It’s always a special time of year to be playing hockey as things gear up towards Christmas. It also means that we are not left with competitive fixtures over the Irish Hockey League break.”
“It promises to be a great day on Sunday with both semi-finals at Stormont and a final on Boxing Day would be even better for us. Pegasus obviously have a long history in Ulster Hockey so it is a competition to be revered. Denman have been fantastic supporters of Ulster Hockey in the last number of years, particularly women’s hockey in the province. I hope they are as proud to be associated with both UH and the Shield as we at UH are to have them as our major sponsor of the competition. Long may it continue.”
Turning to the game itself and Pegasus will start favourites to progress after winning eight out of their first nine EYHL games although Ards have been on an upward curve in recent weeks.
“Ards got off to a slow start but they have really improved and will have gained confidence from some really good recent results including an ISC win over Harlequins,2 Shirley added.
“So we will be under no illusions that they will provide tough opposition for us. We will need to start well and take our chances. “
Shirley’s close friend Megan Frazer will be viewed as Harlequins’ biggest threat to their hopes of progressing against Ulster Elks in the second semi-final on Sunday. The World Cup silver medallist is eagerly looking forward to the game and says that Elks won’t carry any inferiority complex into the game despite the fact they are playing in the Ulster premier League and not the EYHL.
“With the EYHL teams playing in the Denman Ulster Shield again this year, it just makes it that much more competitive as you can see by the teams in the semis,” said Megan.
“So we’re excited to be playing in a semi of any competition but we’ve every intention of playing on Boxing Day although Quins will start favourites due to their EYHL status.”
Elks captain Emma Quinn says Megan’s return from Mannheimer for the duration of the German indoor season has inspired the players around her.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of an Ulster Shield Semi final and it’s been a few years since we have been in this position,” said Quinn.
“We have a been in good form lately and have lots of young talent and it will be important to stick to our processes and go out and enjoy the occasion. Megan brings lots of experience to the squad along with her obvious talent and she has been immensely supportive and encouraging to our young panel of players.”
Harlequins coach Davy Frazer is hoping his youthful squad can step up to the plate although he has the vast experience of Ireland World Cup stars Zoe Wilson and Lizzie Colvin to draw upon.
“I think we are heading into the game in really good shape. My squad includes eight schoolgirls, which is unlike none of the other three semi-finalists,” he said.
“It is pleasing that the three EYHL teams got through to the semis and we’ll be pushing hard to get into our first final for a very long time.”
On the men’s front, the big game is in Kilkeel where Instonians are the visitors in the Ulster Premier League. Kilkeel will be aiming to bounce back from last week’s 4-1 loss to South Antrim after six wins on the trot as they entertain the league leaders. Bangor will be expected to maintain their challenge when they host Raphoe while Mossley might find it tough against goal-hungry North Down who hit six last week.
Meanwhile, the second annual Ulster Hockey indoor youth tournament has doubled in size from last year and no fewer than 24 girls’ teams will be taking part in the first stage of the event at Antrim Forum on Sunday. Twelve teams have entered the two age-groups at Under-18 and 15 level and they will initially be striving for a top-three place which would see them progress to the finals in January. Last year, the tournament, sponsored by BDO, was staged over one day only but the upsurge of interest has meant two days have been set aside for the latest version.
The U-18 finals will be held on January 6 with the U-15 showpiece taking place a week later.
Under-18: Pool A: NICS, Coleraine, Lurgan, Lisnagarvey, Enniskillen, Portadown; Pool B: South Antrim, Armagh, Mossley, Ards, Rainey, Randalstown.
Under-15: Pool A: Ballymoney, Lisnagarvey, Bangor, Mossley, Portadown, CI; Pool B: Ards, Armagh, Lurgan, Coleraine, Dromore, Randalstown.
Ulster Premier League: Bangor v Raphoe (2.30pm); Kilkeel v Instonians (1pm); Mossley v North Down (2.30pm); Civil Service v South Antrim (2.30pm); Portadown v Newry Olympic (1pm)
Intermediate League: Ballymena v Saintfield (1pm); Ballynahinch v CI (1pm); Parkview v Portrush (4pm); PSNI v Down (2.30pm)
Ulster Senior One: Portadown v CI (7.30pm)
Ulster Senior One: Coleraine v Priorians (2.30pm); North Down v Club KV (2.30pm); Omagh v Raphoe (2.30pm)
Denman Ulster Shield Semi-finals (both Stormont): Ards v Pegasus (1pm); Belfast H’quins v Ulster Elks (3pm)
U15 and U18 indoor championships (Antrim Forum, from 12pm)