Munster will have its largest representation for any Irish panel in many years next week when eight players travel with the U18 squad to Lilleshall for a series with England.
It follows the province’s breakthrough interprovincial success last September, landing the title for the first time in 15 years, ending the Leinster/Ulster duopoly.
Bandon Grammar School’s Iarlaith O’Neill, Mark Collins, Robert Sweetnam, Ethan Hamilton and Karl Smyth will be joined by Ashton School’s Kevin O’Dea, Jack O’Meara and Seán Bateman for their first formal matches as they build toward their European Championships in Kazan, Russia in July.
Within that, Sweetnam has become the first male graduate from the fledgling Kinsale Hockey Club, formed in 2012 by Kieran Harte, to earn an Irish call with Hannah Kate Finn doing likewise on the girls’ side.
After Lilleshall, the boys will also take in training trips to Scotland at Easter and then a trip to France before reaching the final destination.
While it is a massive honour for all involved, it does come with a hefty price-tag. All told, the squad’s costs will come to €100,000, covering their kit, travel, accommodation, food and staff expenses.
The entirety of the bill will be footed in one way or another by the players and their families.
Currently, Hockey Ireland does not provide financial backing to its youth teams with the majority of the recently increased high-performance funding and sponsorship revenue ring-fenced for the senior national teams.
The coaching team — led by Niall Denham for this group – are all volunteers with only the strength and conditioning coaches receiving payment in 2019 for their work.
Should families be unable to find the funds – either themselves or via fundraising initiatives — pitched at up to €8,000 per player this year, the fear is that some could miss out on representing their country.
The same is true for coaches and while the current crop looking after Irish youth teams are highly qualified and ambitious, should other work situations come along, they would also be under pressure to step away.
For a sport that often gets an “elitist” tag, it is a worrying situation and is replicated across the other youth teams.
Munster boys Cian Dorgan and Tiarnan Gaffney will travel with the Irish U16s to Lilleshall over mid-term while there are seven girls from the province across the U18 and U16 setups with busy years ahead.
On the girls’ side, Eugene F Collins solicitors is a permanent sponsor of youth hockey and alleviates some costs but a similarly significant self-funding element is in place. Covering U18 and 16 youth hockey will require up to €250,000 to be raised from within.
On the club front, it is crunch time for Munster sides in EY Hockey League Division 2.
Cork C of I and Harlequins both currently top their groups in the men’s competition; should the former beat Railway Union at Park Avenue, they would be assured of a semi-final berth with a couple of games to spare. Harlequins, meanwhile, go to in-form Clontarf who can leap-frog them with a win in Pool B.
In women’s Pool B, second placed UCC host leaders Ards at the Mardyke in a potential cracker that will have a large bearing on who takes the semi-final spots.