’Quins essential to the game'

IT MAY be the world’s second most played team sport It may even be the oldest known ball-and-stick game, but hockey continues to languish outside the mainstream sports in this country.

However, if drive and determination at grassroot level is an indicator of future welfare, then hockey may soon make the breakthrough it yearns for.

It wasn't yet 10.30am on a Saturday as I arrived at Cork Harlequins, wrestling with a gale as I shuffled across the car park to a pitch crammed with tiny tots clutching their sticks.

Each week up to 120 kids between the ages of six and 16 line up with admirable zest to further their hockey education. They listen with awe to their passionate teachers. I wonder do they realise how fortunate they are to have such big names coaching them the likes of current Irish keeper Wesley Bateman and his wife Karen with former Internationals, Bernie Heffernan, Alan O'Driscoll and Ivan Bateman?

Club president Philip Shine who took over the role from powerhouse Pat Dawson says it is so important to get the children involved at this young age. Unlike other sports that are community rooted, hockey is no longer in the minority, because through local involvement it is fast becoming an emerging sport.

"Hockey-playing schools are on the decline in Cork, so we rely on our members to join at an early age. At international level our first teams compete with professional outfits in Europe so a lot of the contributions from clubs is concentrated in that area. Consequently, very little structures exist to support the sport on the ground other than the efforts from the clubs themselves."

Harlequins, it emerges, are pulling out all the stops. As we chat I am offered a mug of coffee courtesy of the hard-working catering staff, Brigid Bateman and Ann Atkinson. Nothing, it appears, is being left to the imagination.

Founded in 1925, Cork Harlequins has a membership of 350 and a proud tradition in hockey. There are five men's and four ladies teams, and a ladies veteran side (over 30) that train every Wednesday on two magnificent Astroturf pitches. Coaching juveniles has been a key part of the building process that provides the link between underage and senior grades. The driving force behind this Saturday morning initiative is Suzanne O'Driscoll and her uncle Alan O'Driscoll.

Suzanne says it is a means by which they can put something back into the club: "We always paid particular attention to the children but this year it is a tribute to all involved that our numbers have doubled. We are implementing a proper strategy and with the support of the club, we have appropriate gear and training facilities for them. The quality of the coaches is also an incentive you can see the kids improving every week. We travel to blitzes each month and this keeps their interest alive."

Mr Shine says their club is not alone in what they are attempting to do. A vast amount of development work is evident throughout Munster, especially in areas such as Waterford and Limerick. However, without structures to carry on the work, their toil will be futile.

"Every Saturday morning in Rosbrien and in the new Institute grounds in Limerick, hundreds of children are being coached. Newtown school in Waterford is another hockey stronghold. Aidan Finn is doing huge promotional work down there. But, we need to secure the future and without a proper foundation it will be difficult to maintain."

TRAINING for Harlequins' next generation started in September and will continue until April. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. All other teams train Tuesday and Thursday nights and new members are always welcome.

Suzanne promises there is also a flourishing social scene. The club also caters for a growing residential area by offering many other sporting outlets.

"We have a full grass surface for cricket and a table tennis section. During the week Night Owls come and play their soccer leagues. We cater for the local residents who use the facilities quite a bit, however, we badly need to upgrade these services and will be applying for lotto funding shortly," Shine says.

Such a vibrant club also boasts some of the finest names in hockey.

"Our first men's team represented Ireland in Brussels last June in the A championship. We competed very favourably against professional sides. And of course we are very proud of Rachel Kohler who recently retired with over 150 Irish caps," he adds.

Challenging these professional European teams requires the best of facilities. Gymnasiums and weight training, he says, should be an integral part of any training regime.

Unless Irish hockey can incorporate this sort of physical expertise, it will continue to prove difficult to contend with the other countries.

He would like to see a National League that would provide clubs with matches at the highest level.

"This would improve skills and as a result players would have top action especially when they are knocked out of the championship. Otherwise, we will be unable to keep our international players at the level they wish to compete."

However, all around this club the solid foundation work is evident, not least through chairperson Margaret O'Neill.

"I am involved for the last 28 years and I have won all medals from senior provincial down to the lower grades. I play with the vets every Wednesday night. We go on tour to other clubs and it is a marvellous way of staying in touch with the game and friends.

"We could chose to sit back and do nothing but instead we decided to take action ourselves. We have much to offer in this club while also serving the needs of the local community," she insists.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up