Ards have been handed a huge incentive ahead of Saturday’s Irish Senior Cup quarter-finals in Dublin against Railway Union.
None of the current Ireland internationals will be permitted to play in either the semi-finals or the final due to training commitments as Graham Shaw’s team prepare for the upcoming Olympic qualifying cycle.
So, if Ards come through Saturday’s game they are likely to be up against an opponent who will be forced to field a weakened side. Holders UCD and Loreto, who meet head on in an all-Dublin quarter-final, have several Ireland players in their ranks as do Cork Harlequins, who will start favourites to overcome Muckross in the other tie.
Ards have no senior internationals in their squad while Pegasus defender Shirley McCay confirmed she has cancelled her international retirement plans so won’t be available for the semi or final if her team gets through with a win over Pembroke on Saturday
The semi-finals are scheduled for the end of March with the decider due to be staged on the second weekend of May. Ards aren’t complaining at the prospect of a potentially less daunting semi if they progress although they are fully aware that they must first overcome the Railway Union test on Saturday in Dublin.
“With the high performance players not available from the semi-finals on, if we can pass this hurdle, we strongly believe we can have a successful run and do well in this competition,” said team captain Naomi McKnight.
“We are feeling confident about the draw and although they are a very strong side, we were unlucky not to take all three points from them in the league in December. The game finished 1-1 but we definitely had the pick of the chances with several near misses and a penalty stroke well saved by their keeper.”
“We are also hoping for history to repeat itself this year as we beat Railway on penalties at the same stage in 2016 when reached the final. Beating Belfast Harlequins in the previous round really showcased the progress we have made as a squad this season as we were defeated 4-2 by them in the league fixture earlier in the season.”
Pegasus, meanwhile, will start slight favourites against a Pembroke side that includes Ireland World Cup silver medallists Emily Beatty and Gillian Pinder. However, captain Michelle Harvey says her team won’t be taking anything for granted, despite beating the Leinster side in a league match earlier in the season.
“We are looking forward to our second encounter of the season against Pembroke but the Irish Senior Cup always has a different vibe to the league with the added challenge of being knock out,” she said.
“It will be a very different match to our previous meeting. They had a few players missing and have gained a lot of momentum in their last few matches of the league. We didn’t perform in the final last year when we lost 4-0 to UCD and would love to have the chance to prove that was a one-off but we have a long way to go before we can even consider looking at the final.”
Meanwhile, Omagh, Portadown and Raphoe will carry Ulster hopes in the Irish Hockey Trophy quarter-finals while in the Ulster Premier, the top two, Lurgan and Ballymoney clash head on at the Co Armagh venue.
Ards will put their tremendous Irish indoor championship success record on the line as they bid for a remarkable eighth successive title at the Antrim Forum on Sunday with Cookstown flying the men’s Ulster flag. Ards retained their Ulster crown earlier this month but were pushed all the way by Mossley, eventually winning only on goal difference.
This year’s national title defence promises to be equally difficult as Ards will be without ace goal scorer, Chloe Brown, who is now playing with East Grinstead. Ards should be capable of progressing to the final with Connacht champions Galway standing in their way in the last four.
However, if the reigning champions overcome that hurdle, Railway Union are likely to pose a tougher test assuming the Leinster champions beat Munster side Ashton in the first semi-final.
Meanwhile Cookstown breezed into the semi finals of the Anderson Cup on Thursday night when they defeated Newry 9-0 in the second leg at Edenvilla to progress 15-1 on aggregate. Stuart Smyth got four of the goals with Michael Kerr weighing in with a double.
The other two games in the competition bit the dust due to frost and have been rescheduled with Instonians facing North Down in the quarter final first leg on Saturday and Bangor taking on Lisnagarvey next week, facing a 7-1 first leg deficit.
Anderson Cup: Cookstown 9 (Ryan Miller, Stu Smyth 4, Michael Kerr 2, Greg Allen, Mark Crooks) Newry 0.
Ulster Intermediate League
(8.00pm) CI v Ballynahinch @ CIYMS Sports Ground
Anderson Cup (Second Round First Leg):
(4.00pm) Instonians v North Down @ Shaw’s Bridge.
Ulster Premier League Division A
(4.00pm) Mossley v Bangor @ Mossley HC
(3.00pm) South Antrim v Newry @ Friends’ School
Ulster Premier League Division B
(2.30pm) Antrim v Queens University @ Antrim Forum LC
(1.00pm) Belfast Harlequins v Portadown @ Belfast Harlequins HC
(1.00pm) N.I. Civil Service v Raphoe @ NICS, Stormont
SaturdayIrish Senior Cup quarter finals: Pembroke v Pegasus (2.30pm); Railway Union v Ards (2.30pm); UCD v Loreto (2.50pm); Muckross v Cork Harlequins.
Irish Hockey Trophy quarter finals: Omagh v Greenfields; Portadown v Our Lady’s; Raphoe v NUIG (1pm); Three Rock v Cork C of I
Ulster Premier League: Lurgan v Ballymoney (2.30pm); Mossley v Banbridge (4pm); Queen’s v Dungannon (1pm); Rainey v Lisnagarvey (4pm); Ulster Elks v Randalstown (2.30pm).
Senior One: Armagh v Coleraine (2.30pm); Club KV v CI (4pm)
Irish Indoor Championship (Antrim Forum):
(9.30am) Ashton Ladies v Railway Union Ladies (Semi-Final 1)
(10.30am) Ards Ladies v Galway Ladies (Semi-Final 2)
(11.30am) Limerick Men v Three Rock Rover Men (Semi-Final 1)
(12.30pm) Cookstown Men v Railway Union Men (Semi-Final 2)
(1.30pm) Women’s 3rd/4th Place Playoff
(2.30pm) Men’s 3rd/4th Place Playoff
(3.30pm) Women’s Final
(4.45pm) Men’s Final