By Declan Colley
RADICAL plans to improve competitiveness and performance standards of club and interprovincial hockey have received a broad welcome.
The changes, announced by Irish Hockey Association chief executive Paul Varian on Saturday, will answer long-standing calls for men’s and women’s All-Ireland leagues and provide European qualification for the winners of each.
However, the proposals will mean the winners of the Irish senior cups - men and women - will no longer qualify for Europe as that honour now falls to interprovincial championship winners. The IHA wants the All-Ireland league to be in operation in September 2007.
According to Mr Varian, the reform is essential "if we are to develop top players capable of fulfilling the goals we have set for our national teams."
His views were echoed by Munster branch president John Rose, who said that while the proposals might require some tweaking, in general they were in line with what the provinces had been looking for.
He said that there would be three forums within the next month in Belfast, Dublin and Cork where the IHA would outline the plans to the clubs and where suggestions and potential improvements would be taken on board. The plan will then be put to a special general meeting in May for full endorsement from the IHA’s affiliates.
The Munster branch will discuss the plan within the next 10 days, Mr Rose added, but he felt that there would be broad support.
"We had a situation in Munster men’s hockey this weekend where the two top teams won 11-0 and 9-0 and that’s not good for the winners and losers. I believe what the IHA are proposing will mean a better standard of hockey at the top level and the potential for us to bring the game to a wider audience," he said.
The main plank of the IHA proposal is the creation of two regional conferences, North and South, in which the top clubs from Ulster, Leinster and Munster will compete.
The new competition will span 16-18 weeks. The top finishing clubs from the conferences then qualify for a nine-team National Superleague, to replace the existing Club Championships. A National Plate will be held for clubs that do not qualify.
Restructured provincial leagues will also be required to have their top division made up exclusively of first teams, to promote new and small club development. However, this element could yet stir up some controversy among the clubs.
One effect of the changes is the winners of the senior interprovincial tournament will now be entered into European Club Championship competition, with the winners of the National Superleague representing Ireland in European Cup Winners Cup competition.
Irish Senior Cup winners will no longer qualify for European competition under the system.