The third edition of the EY Hockey League (EYHL) gets off to a belated start this weekend as the elite men’s and women’s competition look to hit the ground running.
The first two weekends of the season were postponed as Hockey Ireland and the Irish Hockey Umpires Association discussed ways to improve the development of officialdom for the sport.
With an important agreement now in place, the action can begin in earnest as hockey looks to ride the crest of a wave from the summer months.
Over the summer, the Irish men continued their rise on the world stage, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1990 thanks to their efforts at the World League Semi-Finals in Johannesburg.
The women look set to follow them in ending their wait to reach the World Cup – theirs dating back to 2002 – with official confirmation of their ticket to London 2018 likely to come through in October.
It is against that backdrop that Lisnagarvey’s Jonathan Bell – who captained the Irish men this summer – believes that the introduction of the EY Hockey League in 2015 has played an important role in raising club standards with a knock-on effect for the international teams.
“The first year of the EYHL and EY Champions Trophy was very special for us at Lisnagarvey as we won the league and the play offs,” Bell said at the launch of the new season.
“The standard of hockey has increased across the country and breaking into the top ten of the International Hockey Federation world rankings is a real milestone which reflects this.”
“In the last 12 to 18 months we have seen a lot of new faces joining the Irish squad and I think their transition to international hockey has been made easier having played in the EYHL with competitive club games every week.”
His side will begin their campaign with an eye-catching date with Monkstown, finalists last season in both the EY Champions Trophy and the Irish Senior Cup.
Due to the success of the EYHL, a new Division 2 will be introduced for 2018/19 following feedback from clubs around the country, offering better preparation for provincial league clubs to making the step up to the top tier through increased exposure to higher level fixtures. This will help ambitious clubs with player retention and demoted clubs to bridge the gap back to the top tier quickly.
Speaking about the start of the upcoming EYHL season, Mike McKerr, Country Managing Partner, EY Ireland commented: “Following on from a successful two years, we are extremely proud to announce our continued sponsorship of Irish hockey as we once again embark on what promises to be a highly competitive season.
“Building the highest performing and diverse teams is core to our success in EY and when it comes to leadership, teaming and developing winning strategies, there is a great deal to learn from professional sports people.
“By supporting the highest performing teams in the sporting arena, as exemplified by the Irish Hockey League, we hope to expand on our own strategy to inspire effective and engaged teaming, while promoting the importance of diversity within our firm.”
Reigning EY Champions Trophy winners Three Rock Rovers travel north to meet newly promoted Annadale, led by Olympian and player-coach Peter Caruth. Rovers have strengthened with the arrival of Irish underage internationals Ben McCrea and John Mullins from UCD and Clontarf, respectively, while South African international Richard Pautz is also in situ.
Glenanne are on the road to Cork C of I on Sunday. For the Glens’ Olympian Shane O’Donoghue, he is looking to try and take down the holders and says that the league itself is growing year on year.
“The EY league is trying to bridge that gap to the Belgium, Dutch and German domestic leagues. It played a big role going into the Rio Olympics and provided a strong platform in keeping the guys in our Irish training squad sharp.
"There is now little difference between the guys playing professionally and those playing here which is really positive. It has also made it quite attractive for foreign players looking to come and play in Ireland I’m super excited to get back with my home club as the league is going from strength to strength.”
Banbridge – the regular season EYHL champions last year – open their campaign at Railway Union while Cookstown, the other promoted side host Pembroke.
On the women’s side, UCD enter the competition as reigning champions but coach Miles Warren says that there is no chance his side can rest on their laurels.
“We don’t look back to last season because even though we have a lot of returning players, the dynamics in the group is going to be different so we can’t replicate exactly what we did,” he said of the season ahead.
“We have to see what works for this group and how they react. We start from scratch again.”
UCD welcome Irish international Ellen Curran and Bethany Barr following four years in the US with the Liberty Flames with centre midfielder Gillian Pinder graduating and so moving on to Pembroke. Warren feels his side will again be pushing for top honours but he believes that there are a host of challengers looking to knock his side off their perch.
For Pembroke, Pinder is a marquee addition following her graduation from UCD while Emily Beatty – another international – returns to Ireland following a year with KHC Dragons in Belgium. They start their campaign away to Ards.
For Pinder, she envisages it being a hugely competitive campaign with any number of clubs having the chance to grow and challenge for the title.
“You get top class opposition and it’s always tight games, week-in, week out. For players coming up through the underage systems, they are now getting a much better standard when they come in.”
Belfast Harlequins battle Hermes-Monkstown with internationals Lizzie Colvin and Zoe Wilson two big additions..
Pegasus confirmed the signing of Shirley McCay – Ireland most-capped sportswoman – from cross-town rivals Ulster Elks. They host Trinity on day one. Loreto meet Railway Union while UCD face Munster’s leading lights Cork Harlequins.
All told, the EYHL will run for 18 match days from September through to late April. The regular season champion will qualify as one of Ireland’s two European representatives for the 2018/19 season while the top four will all qualify for the EY Champions Trophy where the ultimate national winner will be decided.
It promises to be another thrilling season of Hockey Ireland’s marquee competition, made possible by the support of EY, elevating the level of the sport at club level and beyond.