First test for new format

Ireland’s premier hockey league gets a new lease of life this weekend after undergoing some major structural changes.

The Irish Hockey League is heading into its fifth season since replacing the All-Ireland Club Championships in 2008. There have been tweaks here and there as it finds its feet, but this season sees a raft of significant alterations come in at once.

The IHL will retain its format of two pools of six teams, leading into semi-finals and a final. But whereas these rounds used to be dotted throughout the season, each club’s five games will instead be squeezed into the next four weekends.

In addition, games have been moved to “pooled” venues which will host two or three IHL games in a single day in a bid to bring supporters from multiple clubs together at one venue, much as they are on senior cup final day in Munster and Leinster.

There are still some issues to be ironed out in terms of trying to avoid having games competing for crowds in two pooled venues in one city — as is the case in Cork this weekend.

The upshot is that teams will only play on home turf twice at the most, with others playing just once.

These measures are broadly modelled on the massively successful EuroHockey League, with intensive, condensed competition also favoured at international level.

Catholic Institute’s Munster forward Katie Campbell has mixed feelings about the new structures: “The new format does not work very much in my club’s favour. We play Ulster Elks in Cork first, then we must travel from Limerick to Dublin on consecutive weekends, having to play two matches on ones of those; Railway Union on Saturday and Loreto on the Sunday.

“Both of these teams are among the strongest in the country. Although they aren’t playing in ‘home venues’ as such, I feel they have a large advantage taking into account travelling distances, while expense is also a big issue.

“In one sense it’s a great idea to have it at the end of the season, as most teams are at their peak. It could be argued that the competition is now harder for us to win having only one home game, but the reality is that the best teams will go through to the finals of the IHL regardless of fixtures or venues. The fixtures committee is never going to please everybody.”

Some behind-the-scenes changes have taken place too, which will come into effect next year. Connacht’s women now have an automatic IHL place for the first time, while the wildcard playoffs have been shortened too.

The IHL seeding system is also set for a shake-up. Previously, domestic performances dictated which pool a team was placed in, largely to ensure an even provincial spread.

But that system threw up too many similar pools year-on-year, and has now been scrapped in favour of a Heineken Cup-style seeding method, based on IHL performances going back three seasons.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of other silverware up for grabs tomorrow as the Irish cup final season begins in earnest at Belfield. Catholic Institute’s men carry Munster’s hopes as they’ll look to Simon Brickenden, Eric Callender and Cathal Duggan — named in the Munster Juniors squad this week — to fire them to victory over Cliftonville in the Irish Challenge final. Dungarvan are underdogs against Kilkenny in an all-South East women’s decider, while Monkstown will be hoping to add the men’s Irish Junior Cup after their dramatic first senior cup victory in 99 years a fortnight ago. Pembroke and Lisnagarvey contest the women’s showpiece game.

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