It was this time last year that Loreto coach Paul Fitzpatrick had a holiday booked, so unlikely had it seemed that his side would qualify for the end-of-season Champions Trophy.
But not only did they snatch a place in the tournament with a late surge in the Hockey League, they went on and won it. This weekend, then, Loreto will attempt to defend their title in Banbridge where the four qualifiers are the same as last year, Pegasus, UCD and Cork Harlequins completing the line-up.
Having won the Hockey League this season with six points to spare over Loreto, Pegasus will carry the favourites’ tag in to the tournament, although they’ll be more than wary of their semi-final opponents on Saturday, Cork Harlequins having beaten them in a shoot-out in last year’s semi-finals and again in the last four of the Irish Senior Cup a month ago.
International duty kept Shirley McCay out of that game, and she’ll be missing again due to a suspension that has left her club none too happy.
McCay was the subject of an automatic two-match ban having picked up her third yellow card of the season against Pembroke Wanderers in the ISC back in January, but because the umpire failed to report the card at the time the suspension only kicked in last week when she had to sit out her club’s last Hockey League game of the campaign.
The Champions Trophy semi-final, then, is the second match of the suspension, meaning she would be free for Sunday’s final should Pegasus beat Harlequins.
Unhappy with the delay in the suspension being enforced, Pegasus appealed to Hockey Ireland for it to be overturned, but that appeal was rejected, leaving the club without their most experienced player against Harlequins, and one of their biggest goal threats. McCay scored nine goals in the Hockey League this season, most from penalty corners.
Loreto, meanwhile, take on UCD in Saturday’s second semi-final, a repeat of last year’s pairing when Ali Meeke’s goal put an end to the students’ treble-seeking quest. UCD haven’t been the same force they were last season, finishing third in the Hockey League with 15 points less than their 2017-18 winning campaign, but there’s rarely much between these two teams, their last meeting, in the Hockey League in March, ending scoreless.
Before Sunday’s final Muckross and Queens meet in the Hockey League promotion/relegation play-off, the winners taking their place in the top tier of the competition next season, the losers dropping a division.
On the international front, new Irish coach Sean Dancer won't get the opportunity to see his team in action in an official game against any senior opposition ahead of June's FIH Series Finals in Banbridge after Canada withdrew, for financial reasons, from the four friendly internationals they were due to play against Ireland before the tournament.
Instead, Ireland will now play India's under-21 side, which will be in Dublin for a Four Nations tournament, as well as Ulster, Ireland's under-21 women and under-18 boys, before finishing their preparations with a practice match against Korea who will also be playing in the Series Finals.
Champions Trophy – Saturday – (at Banbridge) Semi-finals: Pegasus v Cork Harlequins, 10.30; Loreto v UCD, 12.30. Sunday Final, 2.30.
Hockey League Promotion/Relegation play-off – Sunday: Muckross v Queens, Banbridge, 11.30.