Sean Nicholson and David Hobbs know each other from their schooldays and have played together for Ashton, Munster and Ireland. Today they put their friendship aside as their clubs, Harlequins and Church of Ireland, face-off in the Irish Senior Cup quarter-final. Declan Colley reports.
SEAN NICHOLSON’s call-up to the Irish squad to play in a quadrangular tournament in Egypt later this month should have been the occasion for celebration for the 23-year-old Harlequins player, but he’s had a lot on his mind. Well actually, he’s only had one thing on his mind, but it’s been enough to hone his focus.
Any game against old rivals Church of Ireland is a big one for "Quins" players, but a cup quarter-final and the year-long bragging rights is one none of the players want to miss.
"This is massive for the two clubs," Nicholson says. "It’s the biggest you can get - both for the players and the club members. You’d prefer if it was a final, of course, but it’s not. Even so, there’s a huge amount at stake for everyone and that will make it a great occasion."
Nicholson recalls that it has been some time since the two Cork clubs met in the cup - a game Harlequins won thanks to "a John Aherne screamer" but he is more concerned about his own form lately, complaining it has not been up to the standard he’d like.
"I haven’t been playing well for the past year or so," he maintains, ignoring the fact that injuries have been responsible for the stop-start nature of his ability to play during that period.
"I’ve been injured three times in that period and I’ve found that when you come back and can’t perform to the level you expect of yourself, it makes you mad. You beat up on yourself with frustration."
Some of that frustration comes from the fact that Irish hockey has been going through such an important cycle of development on the international front and he has not always been in a position to be part of it. But he has matured enough to know time is on his side.
Failing to make Dave Passmore’s side for the successful Nations Cup campaign in Rome last September was disappointing, but he reckons that victory was a massive incentive for fringe players to try even harder to make the grade internationally.
"It is a very exciting time for Irish hockey because we know it is going places. As a result the players have been busting a gut to be part of it. They are looking to the future and they want to be involved.
"Everyone is getting a fair crack of the whip and while it might be a little annoying to have trained for the whole summer and not made the squad for Rome, you eventually realise that if your time comes, it comes - there’s no point crying about it. We all know if you’re in form, you’ll get a break. You have to be patient."
For now, however Nicholson says he is now more interested in doing well for his club more than anything.
"Do that," he says, "And everything else follows."
He now wants to underline his selection for Egypt with a good display today and has no real problem with the fact that most of the opposition are good buddies.
"I know John Jermyn since pre-school and I know David Hobbs since secondary school, but although we’re great friends, when we get onto the pitch it will be a case of every man for himself. We’ll be friends after the game again, but during the match the only aim is to beat them. We’ve played them twice this year in the league and I didn’t enjoy those games. Usually they are good, hard games, but this year they haven’t been enjoyable and I don’t know why. I expect that to be different on Saturday.
"The bottom line is that you definitely don’t want to lose - you’ll be hearing about it for too long. Hopefully they’ll be the ones crying in their beer."
If familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, then David Hobbs and the rest of the Cork Church of Ireland squad are unfamiliar with that truism.
They know their Harlequins opponents better than any others in the country. It has not bred disdain in them, just a burning desire to make the semi-finals of the Cup at their rival’s expense.
Today’s game, Hobbs predicts, will be no more easy or difficult than any other between the two sides, just that bit more intense.
Hobbs, currently on a year out having completed a college degree in economics and geography, says the clash is the "biggest game in Irish club competition for years" and as such, will not be for the faint-hearted.
"Both sides will give everything to win this one, there’s so much at stake," the Irish international says. " Most games - league games - are a little boring to be honest, but this will be very different.
"The two league games we’ve played this year were a little flat - they were lacking a bit of passion or something. This one certainly won’t be lacking in passion."
That is why Hobbs, already an intrinsic part of the Irish side which won Nations Cup honours in Rome and part of the squad travelling to Egypt, put all international thoughts aside in preparation for the game.
"We haven’t been playing a lot for our clubs this season, with the main focus being on the Irish set-up and while the Irish thing is a huge commitment, I still get a lot from training with the club twice a week and I concentrate very much on my club when I’m away from the national squad. I’ll think about Ireland again when the weekend is finished."
Both sides have three players on the squad travelling to Egypt (Hobbs, John Jermyn and Karl Burns from C of I and Sean Nicholson and the Black brothers for ‘Quins) and are therefore close friends anyway.
For Hobbs though, today’s game does not represent a chance to get one over on his international mates, but raises a family dimension he is acutely aware of.
"I’ve three brothers with ’Quins and I know that this is a really big thing for my brother John, in particular. It’s not nice to see anyone lose at the best of times, but I will definitely feel for him if we do beat them.
"As for the rest of them, we all get on really well, but I’m looking forward to the banter on the pitch. They’ll wish us good luck at the start, but they will do everything they can to beat us and we’ll be the same."
One issue facing C of I is they have to play on ‘Quins’ sand-based pitch, rather than their own, state-of-the-art water-based pitch, but Hobbs does not see this as being a potential difficulty.
"No matter what surface you’re playing on, you try and play your own game at your own pace. But we’ve played a lot on sand and it should not be a problem. It might be a bit slower than we’re used to, but I’d have to say that the ‘Quins pitch is not a slow sand pitch. I don’t think there’ll be any worries on that front."
Although a regular on the Irish panel, the C of I player says he is looking forward to this game more than any other because of the challenge it presents.
"Representing Ireland is a big thing, but in terms of hockey in Cork this is the biggest game for a long time and our aim is to win. We can think about other things when we’ve done that."