Future of game at national level in the hands of clubs

Irish hockey’s future reaches a critical juncture this weekend, with clubs set to vote on whether to expand the national league.

Debate in recent years has centred on whether to expand the Irish Hockey League from a seven-game competition spread throughout the season to a full-season, 18-game format, taking participant clubs out of their provincial leagues.

Forums were held during the consultation process earlier this year by the Irish Hockey Association’s competitions committee in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, with travel costs, meritocracy and the need for different competition formats on the men’s and women’s side among the flashpoint issues. The IHA believes it now has a proposal which tackles the majority of concerns, and clubs are being asked to vote for or against a “full IHL” at an EGM in the Stillorgan Park Hotel on Sunday.

However, Ulster Hockey — unhappy with the consultation process — have asked clubs to stay away, insisting they will send two delegates to represent their constituent clubs.

Ulster say the IHA has not engaged with them over their grievances, which largely surround their schools structure. Many of those games are played on Saturday mornings, with both pupils and teachers doubling up to play club games later that day.

However, five clubs from the northern province are thought to be planning to defy their branch and vote yes, while top players have voiced their support on social media. For their part, the IHA has produced a steady stream of articles on their website in recent weeks with stakeholders from all four corners of Ireland — including both national coaches, Darren Smith and Craig Fulton — adding weight to the proposal.

Banbridge coach Mark Tumulty used the example of his side’s farcical 14-0 win over Belfast Harlequins recently — Bann lost last year’s Ulster league on goal difference — as proof that the regional leagues have lost their lustre.

“It has to be an All-Ireland League. If you came to see [that] game, why would you come back?” he said in the Banbridge Leader. “I’d rather have played Three Rock Rovers, lost 2-1 and had a good game of hockey. I went home thinking what’s the point.”

David Harvey, one of numerous Corkmen plying his trade in Dublin with Pembroke Wanderers, backs up this argument.

“The future of Munster hockey is dependent on a full IHL; top Munster teams are well able to compete on their day and the reason they don’t beat top Leinster and Ulster teams regularly isn’t down to ability. It’s because they are starved of high-quality games in their own domestic league.”

Inez Cooper, chair of the IHA’s competitions committee, believes without a flagship national competition, the 100,000 schoolchildren who have played hockey in the past year in the Republic of Ireland are devoid of inspiration.

The conjecture will matter little if clubs don’t turn up to vote on Sunday; the game’s future at the elite level is in their hands.

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