Standing at a crossroads

This afternoon, Ireland’s elite hockey players will traverse the country and wonder: could I do this every other weekend?

Standing  at a crossroads

The sixth season of the Irish Hockey League (IHL) gets underway today, again shoehorned into five weeks at the back end of the season, and the discussion in each vehicle is likely to be around the same topic, regardless of whether the journey originated in Munster, Leinster or Ulster.

A full-season IHL has been debated extensively at forums in Cork, Dublin and Belfast over the past six days. A sample tournament format comprising 12 teams — five Leinster, five Ulster and two Munster — was put forward, with 22 games set to be played over 16 weeks, including a number of “double” weekends to minimise journeys between Munster and Ulster clubs.

The IHL working group say this setup is not a fait accompli, and they have also not decided whether any new competition would begin later this year or in 2015. Whatever format it takes, the premise is quite straightforward — get the country’s best teams duking it out more often, raise standards, reduce the step-up to international hockey and end the one-sided scorelines that have blighted the provincial leagues.

Not since Gene Muller centralised the women’s national team in Dublin has an issue so divided Irish hockey.

Many of the arguments that preceded the introduction of the present IHL in 2007 — cost, player movement and competitiveness were the buzzwords — are back in vogue. IHL working group chairperson Inez Cooper has listened to the grassroots, and her committee must decide what recommendation to make to the Irish Hockey Association’s board next month.

Whether the waters are muddier or clearer post-debate is tough to call; each province had its own bugbears about the new competition and what it means for their domestic leagues.

The broadest support came from Munster where teams at either end of the spectrum have been crying out for more competitive games. Cork C of I forward Stephen Sweetnam explained how he felt the players would benefit.

“Hockey is a unique game in that there are very few skills that are hard to learn — it’s the repetition and consistency that marks out a top side from an average one,” he said. “Trapping, movement, pressing, marking and tackling are all automatically done better in the face of greater competition. In Munster, the lopsided nature of games means poor habits get rewarded, whereas in national competition they will be the very things that cost you.”

Reservations over promotion and relegation abounded across the three forums, namely whether regional representation should be maintained among the 12 teams regardless of finishing positions or if it should be a fully meritocratic system. Corinthians’ Dan Treacy suggested a two-tier IHL to solve this issue and drew support: “Has anyone looked at doing a two-tier national league with a meritocracy in which water comes to its own level? There has been Leinster sides have done very well in IHL who haven’t qualified this year. There’s a huge jump in this; this would shorten the jump and there would be a higher level to the top tier.”

The Leinster community was more receptive to the overall venture than had been predicted — YMCA’s Warwick Armstrong was among those who had b predicted the death knell for smaller clubs if it came to pass — with a number of top international players such as Conor Harte and Lisa Jacob making impassioned pleas for it to go ahead. That it would also likely solve the major fixture congestion in the province has helped.

Former IHA High Performance Director David Passmore highlighted player burnout fears in an open letter on Southern Fried Hockey entitled “Put the players first”, citing the example of two of his Pembroke Wanderers players who, were it not for injury, could have feasibly played 17 games in a single month between club, provincial, U21 and senior international commitments.

The biggest stumbling block is likely to lie in Ulster, where the impact a full IHL would have on schools hockey could prove a dealbreaker.

These competitions are largely played midweek in Munster and Leinster but are pencilled in for Saturdays in Ulster, occupying a number of teenagers, teachers and coaches who also line out for top club sides on the same day — a problem if you’re playing out of province every fortnight.

“We have six schoolgirls in our squad, three teachers and a mum, so the IHL would not suit us if we got a place in it,” said Randalstown captain, Louise Creighton.

While many question the wisdom of following what is done in other countries when cultural and financial differences exist here — especially changes made in isolation and not as part of an overall strategic plan — Monkstown director of coaching Trevor Watkins urged clubs not to fear change.

“Change doesn’t come easy to everyone. It brings with it the fear of the unknown and generally, we have taken the conservative route. The sport internationally has changed; who thought of no offside? Hockey was the first sport. Roll on, roll off subs? Hockey. Who thought of the auto-pass? Hockey. All of those rules have revolutionised our game,” he said.

“Ten years ago, Belgium and Ireland were ranked in the same place in European hockey. Today, since they introduced their national league, Belgium are serious contenders for a podium position in Rio in 2016. The numbers of people playing the game has increased 10-fold and TV is there. It’s the sexiest sport to be involved in. When the IHL came in, my club Monkstown were not in it and we were scared stiff. What happened? The structures have been there for a while and it took a few years to get in. You look at where we are today and we should be an example to the smaller clubs what can be achieved.”

Something has to give. Cooper and Passmore made the point that when IHL was introduced in 2007, nothing was taken out of the calendar. “There are only two ways to move on,” wrote Passmore. “Either introduce a full IHL, where there are a smaller number of high-quality matches… or scrap the current IHL, as it just adds to a highly congested calendar.”

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