As curtain-raisers go, drawing the winners of ten of the past 11 national club titles would take some beating. Hermes host Pegasus at UCD on Sunday in a defining Pool B tie in a fixture usually reserved for the Springtime.
Shelley Sloan swaps navy for red while Nikki Evans has moved on but there will still be plenty of spice to the fixture with a wealth of former international talent on display. Pegasus do have the know-how to win in Dublin and the winner will have a huge early boost in the tougher of the two groups.
Loreto’s inclusion means three of last year’s semi-finalists fight for two spots with student upstarts UCC adding to the mix. The Beaufort club start with a home tie against transitional Old Alex for whom former player Ann-Marie Cullen will wear the captain’s armband. Sarah Scott and Nicci Daly are in to try and replace the goals supplied last season by Zara Delany.
In Pool A, Railway Union have a much more favourable draw than their last time out and have a significant Ards-connection for their debut tie. Team manager Helen Johnston is a former Ards’ club member while former UCD player Katy Fraser has lined out in Ulster colours with Helen Stevenson. The auto-pass suits Mick McKinnon’s pacy side down to the ground, especially with the link play provided by Sinead Walsh (below, right), and look well set for a semi-final berth.
The other spot is likely to be contested by Ballymoney, Cork Harlequins and Pembroke though the Ulster side, inspired by Bridget Cleland have the major benefit of the comforts of the Joey Dunlop Centre for their first three ties against the other fancied sides. Harlequins’ derby day with city rivals C of I is another opening weekend belter to look out for.
Off pitch, the embryonic has endured a couple of week’s of preseason shenanigans as the qualification rules came up for discussion yet again. Clubs initially received word that an IHL committee proposal for an additional place for a Connacht club in the end of season, wildcard play-offs, would be implemented; increasing the competition to five teams for the final two IHL places.
The IHA management board belatedly over-ruled that option, deeming it as a ‘significant structural change’ to the Irish Hockey League. Such ‘significant’ changes are protected in a clause stating the IHL structure remains unaltered for three years.
In a statement released this week, the IHA said “the opinion of the Board is that if the rule remained as put forward by the IHL committee then the IHA would be legitimately open to appeal by Clubs against the rule change.”
It is a blow for Connacht hockey, especially in the manner the affair was conducted. They were the one province not to gain an extra entry to the major, national competition in the expansion from the eight-team club championship up to 12 teams in the IHL – holding just a sole wildcard play-off place. The ruling means they will not have two places at least until the end of this three year period.
In a similar vein, the destination of Ireland’s two European places is currently up for discussion for the 2010/11 season. The deadline for club submissions is today (Friday) as to whether two places should go to the IHL as opposed to the current situation where one place is allocated for the IHL and one for the Irish Senior Cup winners. Nonetheless, the hockey takes centre-stage this weekend with some serious action in prospect.
*For a team by team analysis of the IHL season ahead, click here
Pool A (Saturday): Ballymoney vs Pembroke Wanderers, 1pm, Joey Dunlop Centre; Cork Harlequins vs Cork Church of Ireland, 2pm, Farmer’s Cross; Railway Union vs Ards, 5pm, Park Avenue
Pool B (Saturday): UCC vs Randalstown, 12.30pm, The Mardyke
(Sunday): Loreto vs Old Alexandra, 3.30pm, Beaufort; Hermes vs Pegasus, 1.45pm, UCD