The Cork students have moved from also-rans to Munster title contenders during Neil Welch’s five seasons at the helm, picking up the Irish Hockey Trophy and an inter-varsities title en route in 2012.
They ousted Cork Harlequins from Munster’s established top two last term and qualified for the IHL for the first time, but are rank outsiders in a pool containing champions Monkstown, Pembroke Wanderers, Annadale, Cookstown and Instonians.
“We’ve put in a few years’ work to get to this stage and I think all the lads are really looking forward to getting stuck in,” said O’Leary. “We’ve managed to hold on to the majority of our squad from last season. But there’s plenty promise in a few fresh faces this year.
“It was never going to be an easy draw. We’re just delighted to have UCC up there with so many other top clubs. We played Monkstown last year in the Irish Senior Cup (College lost 3-0) and they are a quality side. We are really looking forward to our clash in The Mardyke this season. We may be considered underdogs in our group, but we are really looking forward to trying to cause a few upsets.”
Monkstown are favourites to top this pool as they seek a IHL three-in-a-row, but their bow in the competition is delayed until November 9 as they are in EuroHockey League action this weekend, Ireland having regained their place lost in 2012. They face Belgian upstarts Daring and France’s Racing Club de Paris in a group entirely comprised of debutants.
Back home, Cork Church of Ireland face a daunting start to their IHL campaign with an away game against Banbridge.
The Co Down men are in ruthless form, knocking a total of 26 goals past Belfast Harlequins and Kilkeel.
Irish international Peter Brown has rejoined from UCD and a couple of other shrewd signings make them a force to be reckoned with. It’s not ideal for Munster champions C of I, who lost this game 7-2 last year after a controversial red card left them short-handed, given their talismen David Hobbs and John Jermyn are struggling with back and calf injuries respectively.
On the women’s side, Cork Harlequins hope to begin their campaign with a bang as they host Ulster Elks.
Quins, looking to build on a fifth-place finish last year with a first semi-final appearance since 2010, have yet to concede a goal this term. That record will be severely tested by a star-studded Elks line-up.
UCC face a Lurgan side who have yet to win a game in Ulster this season first up, albeit away from home.
Irish Hockey League Pool A (Men): Instonians v UCC, Shawsbridge, 2.30pm; Annadale v Cookstown, Lough Moss, 4pm. Pool B (Men): Banbridge v C of I, Havelock Park, 3pm; Lisnagarvey v UCD, Comber Road, 2.45pm; Three Rock Rovers v Railway Union, Grange Road, 5pm.
Munster Men’s Div 1: Catholic Institute v Ashton, Rosbrien, 12.30pm; Limerick v Harlequins, Villiers, 2.30pm.
Irish Hockey League Pool A (Women): Hermes v Railway Union, St Andrews College, 1.30pm; Lurgan v UCC, Lurgan, 2pm; Ballymoney v Pegasus,Joey Dunlop Centre, 2.30pm. Pool B (Women): Loreto v Greenfields, Loreto School, 2.30pm; UCD v Ards, Belfield, 2.45pm; Cork Harlequins v Ulster Elks, Farmers Cross, 3.30pm.
Munster Ladies Div 1A: Bandon v Limerick, Bandon G.S., 1pm; Cashel/New Inn v Catholic Institute, Rockwell College, 12pm; C of I v UL, Garryduff, 11.30. Div 1B: Belvedere v Bruff, Ballincollig Community School, 3.45pm; Tipperary v Cobh, Canon Hayes Sports Centre, 11am. Div 2: UCC v Cork Harlequins, Mardyke, 12pm.