Ards will be in uncharted territory in more ways than one when they represent Ireland at the European Indoor Championship in France this weekend.
Not only are the opposition unfamiliar so too is the fact the Ulster side won’t be in charge of their own destiny for the first time in seven consecutive trips to the continent.
That’s because Ards surrendered their Irish title to Railway Union a couple of weeks ago and their finishing position this weekend will determine in which division the Dublin side compete next year. Player-coach Naomi Grundie says her players are looking forward to the trip to Lille and they are aiming to do Railway a favour by earning them promotion to the second-tier.
Ards are up against Lisbon Casuals, Turkish side Bolu and Slovakians Raca in their group before going into the play-offs.
Grundie said: “Our aim is to finish in the top-two in our group and secure a place in the semi-final and, ultimately, we’re hoping for a spot in the final to guarantee promotion as two teams go up.
“We haven’t played any of the teams before, so we know relatively little about them apart from the little footage we’ve seen of some of them on the internet.”
Grundie says Ards weren’t too disappointed at losing their Irish crown and believes the experience of playing in Europe will be invaluable for her team going forward.
“Strangely, we weren’t disappointed, not at all. Our aim was to develop and give opportunity to a wider group of players this season who perhaps in seasons gone by might not have got the opportunity given the strength and experience of players we’ve had in the past,” she said.
“With this in mind, I feel our squad performed very well. Winning Ulster was always our aim and we knew that wasn’t a given, we had to work hard for that. Ultimately I suspected it might come down to another Ards Vs Railway showdown.”
“Railway were more clinical on the day and we can accept that. I’m excited for Europeans and to give our younger players the opportunity to play in this tournament knowing how much it will benefit their game.”
“Knowing we’re not going to Europe next year is bitter sweet I suppose. As a team, we absolutely love going to this competition, this will be our seventh Europeans. We were naturally disappointed but equally we are all content that we have the freedom to pursue other life events (skiing, holidays, weddings, family etc) during the February half-term break. “
Grundie believes indoor hockey is in a better place now than it has been for some time although the sport hasn’t perhaps grown at aduly level in Ulster to the same extent in the south.
“Yes definitely it’s on the upin the junior sections with the U15 and U18 club competitions being extremely well attended and supported.” she added.
“There are still a lot of senior teams who are choosing not to enter and probably lack the resources to do so (hall hire, boards, coaching). Hopefully, the younger crop coming through will impact the senior attendance in years to come.”
She added: “Our aim was to win the Ulster title and develop and give an opportunity to a wider group of players this season, given the strength and experience of players we’ve had in the past but now lost. “
“I’m excited for the Europeans and the chance to give our younger players the opportunity to play in this tournament, knowing how much it will benefit their game.”
Meanwhile, as Ards sit out this week’s IHL programme, Pegasus will be attempting to consolidate their position in the top-four with a home win over Pembroke on Saturday, having lost to UCD on Sunday while Belfast Harlequins host Railway Union.
In IHL 2, Queen’s can take another step towards the promotion play-off series if they can defeat student rivals UCC while Lurgan must beat Catholic Institute to keep their slim hopes alive.
In the Ulster Premier, new leaders Ballymoney can pull further clear on Saturday with a win over Lisnagarvey, who are just two points behind in third place. At the other end of the table, struggling Randalstown and Ballymena face Mossley and Ulster Elks respectively on Friday night.
Rainey host Dungannon on Saturday, attempting to move closer to safety following last weekend’s crucial win over Ballymena which saw them move above their opponents at the bottom of the table.
In the men’s EYHL, Banbrdge face a tough est as they must travel to Dublin to take on Three Rock Rovers, while Lisnagarvey are also on the road to play Pemroke. Annadale host Monkstown at Strathearn while in a crucial game at the wrong end of the table, Cookstown, on the back of two big losses last weekend, will be aiming to get back on track when they take on basement side Dublin YMCA.