The line-up for the women’s EY Champions Trophy semi-finals was completed on Wednesday evening with Loreto and UCD both landing 1-0 wins in their respective quarter-finals.
They go through to face Pembroke and Catholic Institute in the semi-finals with the question now how well the sides have coped with their contrasting preparations.
For the two sides already assured of semi-final spots, they have been waiting to know their opponents for three weeks, the plus side being the extra rest and focus.
For Loreto and UCD, the quick turnaround and managing three games in five days is a big ask but there is also a potentially big residual benefit from the Junior World Cup.
Both sides had large contingents from that event and being part of a full-time athlete setup for the duration could well elevate those involved’s performance. Alternatively, the comedown from Potchefstroom could be sharp given the exertions that went into the event – which way the cookie crumbles remains to be seen.
For Loreto, Yasmin Pratt carried on her excellent form from the Junior World Cup to impudently nick the ball off the last Old Alex defender and score in the 16th minute.
It proved the only goal of their game at Beaufort and it continued their excellent run of form, going seven games in the regular season without defeat to move up from seventh spot into fourth.
They advance to play EYHL regular season champions Pembroke, a fourth meeting between the clubs this term. Pembroke swept aside Loreto 3-0 in the second week of the season and then picked up a crucial come-from-behind win just after Christmas with Leah McGuire striking three times in those meetings.
That second win came just a week after the Beaufort side had won 6-1 in the Jacqui Potter Cup and, in the end, it proved vital as Pembroke had a tricky second half to the season, winning four of their eight league games.
Pembroke’s manifesto is mainly built around a strong defence, letting in just 14 goals all season with Emma Buckley enjoying a fine season with Hayley O’Donnell, McGuire, Amy-Kate Trevor and Isy Delamer a mean outfit.
It has helped them run up seven single-goal victories over the campaign despite only being the league’s seventh highest scorers. Such is the spread of scorers, meanwhile, in a share of 15th, midfield maestro Gillian Pinder and Aisling Naughton are their highest on the goal charts but, with 16 different players on the mark, the danger can come from anywhere.
For Loreto, JWC stars Siofra O’Brien (8 goals), Aoife Taaffe, Christina Hamill (both 7) and Hannah Matthews account for the majority of their tally. The aforementioned Pratt and Sarah Torrans, countering Sinead Loughran, Emily Beatty and Naughton, means this is a contest absolutely rammed with speed merchants and could flow quickly from end to end.
“We feel like we are in a good place to be able to perform this weekend,” said Pembroke coach Gavin Groves. “We know we have a spot secured in Europe after the League success but the challenge of this playoff weekend is one that we are really excited about. It’s an early start against a really good team but it’s a contest that hopefully bring the best out of us.”
His Loreto counterpart Paul Fitzpatrick added: “There are four really good teams there this year and it should make for an exciting weekend. A tough game on Wednesday against Old Alex was good preparation for Saturday and if we can manage the challenges of the week and weekend, we have a chance.
“Most importantly the team have worked and dealt really well with the challenges this season brought and know looking forward to playing some good quality hockey.”
The second semi-final at 12.30pm features newcomers Catholic Institute who are in the playoffs following what was their first complete season in the women’s EYHL.
It follows an immaculate home run of eight wins in succession and just an opening day draw to disrupt their perfect record. The side that did break that chain was UCD, their Saturday semi-final opponents.
Insta’s prowess was not solely down to their sand-based home advantage as they did raid UCD for a 3-2 success in November with Róisín Upton scoring a hat trick. Along with fellow Olympian Naomi Carroll, the international duo have provided over 30 goals between them across league and cup and occupy the top two positions on the goalscoring list.
Neutralising their threat will be the big challenge for the likes of Sarah McAuley, KJ Marshall and Emma Paul at the heart of the students’ defence in front of fellow JWC player Ellie McLoughlin.
Hannah McLoughlin got the only goal for UCD in their midweek quarter-final win over Pegasus that has them in this position as they go in pursuit of the title they won back in 2017. Of that vintage, only Gillian Pinder and Leah McGuire will be in action this weekend in Pembroke colours.
Indeed, Loreto have nine of their 2018 winning side still in situ and are the only side to have players to win the title for their current club. Naomi Carroll, Sally Campbell, Sinead Loughran and Ellen Curran all won in 2016 with Hermes.
It makes for a fascinating and hugely competitive weekend with plenty of new winners picking up national glory for the first time, no matter which club prevails.
Sunday’s final will be live-streamed via the Hockey Ireland Youtube channel.
Women’s weekend fixtures
Saturday, April 23rd
EY Champions Trophy Semi-Finals: Pembroke v Loreto, Havelock Park, 10,30am; Catholic Institute v UCD, Havelock Park, 12.30pm
Sunday, April 24th
EY Champions Trophy Final: Havelock Park, 2.30pm