The men’s Irish Hockey League returns to action this weekend with some enticing hockey taking place over the coming six weeks as the battle to be the top club in the nation begins in earnest.
After hectic provincial schedules, the competition will now take place in jig-time with the tournament being played out before the Irish team play in the Champions Challenge I.In men’s Pool A, Three Rock Rovers enter the tournament on a major high having won the Irish Senior Cup last weekend, ending a 40-year drought for the world’s oldest cup competition. It is a measure of how far they have come in a very short space of time as they did not qualify for last year’s Irish Hockey League following an eighth place finish in the Leinster league two years ago.
But they have since risen to be major contenders both at provincial and national stage. Amid their IHL campaign, they have to play a Mills Leinster Senior Cup final on St Patrick’s Day, making theirs a packed schedule but they have a strong squad for the task.
The emergence of youth internationals like Luke Madeley, Ben McCrea, Daragh Walsh, Harry Morris and Fred Morris has bolstered their panel considerably this season but they will miss Dutchman Huub de With who has returned to his homeland in the wake of the Senior Cup success.
Despite being a new arrival to the competition after a year’s absence, they will be one of the fancied sides in Pool A. They start off with a date against Cork Harlequins who have endured a tough season to date and, if they are to remain at the top table in 2014/15, will need to qualify for the IHL via the wildcard playoffs.
Quins were 2012 Irish Senior Cup winners and still have a core of that side available with Hobbs’ brothers Dan, John and Rob key figures while former international Jason Black and David Lombard can be key figures. But their form in Munster, dropping below UCC in the final rankings for the first time, will place them in the outsiders category to progress.
The northern triple-threat in the group is headed up by Lisnagarvey who have been involved in a ding-dong tussle for the Ulster Premier League title with Banbridge all season, a match-up that has been so tight that it could well be decided on goal difference.
Garvey blend youth and experience with Wallace HS’ schoolboy Sean Murray a remarkably assured presence in the centre of midfield, dovetailing with veteran Mark Raphael to beautiful effect. Jason Lynch has close skills to beat the band and has been delightful to watch since returning from playing in Germany.
Timmy Cockram is their main penalty corner threat while they have a very assured defensive line with James Lorimer and skipper Jonny Bell manning the central roles and the experienced Stevie Arbuthnot a roaming influence from left back in the mould of former great Johnny Gray.
They will be looking to bring the title back to the Comber Road for the first time since the 2011/12 season and they start off their journey with a battle at Shawsbridge against Instonians who have comfortably retained a top four berth in Ulster this term.Inst drew with Garvey in the corresponding fixture in their local league campaign in January and, in William Robinson, have one of the sharpest shooters in the province. Allied to Paul Gleghorne’s strength and James Corry – who became the first Donegal native to earn an Irish cap in January – they have a number of strong weapons to make an impact.
For Cookstown, recent years have seen some of their biggest stars depart these shores since they lit up the Irish Senior Cup in 2011 with Timmy Smyth, Ian Sloan and David Ames all notable departures to foreign shores over the past few years.
Nonetheless, there is still plenty of nous in their panel who have been ever-present in the competition since its inception. Ian Hughes is a vastly experienced goalkeeper while Matthew Rollins is a beautiful distributor from the back.
Up front, Greg Allen recently passed a century of goals for the club and, with former international Andy Barbour’s prompting, will always be buzzing around for chances. The former international passed a famous milestone this week with his tenth goal of the season, the 20th successive year he has scored in double figures.
Whether than can translate into a sustained tilt at the semi-finals berth may depend on how they do in their first game against Pembroke. The Dublin side raided Steelweld Park with a 7-3 win in November and a repeat performance in round one of the IHL could see the Co Tyrone side on the back foot.
For Pembroke, they will be looking to bounce back from a frustrating Senior Cup final defeat against Three Rock, the second year running they were denied the title at the final stage. With former Irish coach David Passmore on the sideline, they are cleverly drilled and have star turns in the form of centre back Conor Harte and goal machine Alan Sothern.
Mark Ingram is one of the best young goalkeepers in the country while Maurice Elliott is a big boost to the squad. He missed the Senior Cup finals weekend but will be back in the country for this competition and will be looking to show off the skills that saw him earn a place in the Irish training panel at the age of 31.
The two Leinster sides and Lisnagarvey, by virtue of their Irish Senior Cup runs will probably be the fancied teams to contest the top two places with round five a potentially delicious fourth meeting of the season between Pembroke and Three Rock.
In Pool B, UCD’s debut in the competition sees them go straight in at the deep end with a game against reigning champions Monkstown. The students became the ninth different Leinster side to qualify for the marquee event last season and are ambitious enough to do some damage in their maiden year in the IHL.
Shane O’Donoghue and Nick Burns can be devastating on their day while Ross Canning has a keen eye for goal. They also have a strong corner routine and have taken plenty of decent scalps this term. Among them, of the other IHL contenders they beat Instonians in the Senior Cup and Pembroke and Corinthian in the Leinster league and took points off Three Rock Rovers.Clinton Sweetnam’s return to Bandon was keenly felt earlier this season but Rory O’Donoghue’s side will hope they can cause a bit of a stir. Senior internationals Kirk Shimmins and Peter Brown give their midfield a particular buzz.
Monkstown will be no shrinking violets and are smarting after their Senior Cup semi-final exit to Three Rock 4-0. It was a huge surprise after they had annexed the Leinster league in style a couple of weeks earlier but Stephen Cole’s injury was a tough blow to cope with.
It added to the unavailability of David Cole for much of the season but Ian Horsfield’s return to Ireland from Scotland where he played a number of times in the EuroHockey League with Kelburne has helped ease that setback.
Graham Shaw’s side have a razor-sharp attacking line laden with internationals and, should they fire, the sky-blues will be the side to stop in the initial group.
They have already got one over on Banbridge, on paper their main rivals, this season with an assured 3-1 win at Rathdown – the venue when the two sides meet in the final round of the group phase.
Bann have been lifted by the return of Eugene Magee this season after a number of years playing in Belgium and Germany and they have plenty of up and coming talent. Ulster U-21 captain Matthew Bell is chief among them with Johnny McKee another rising star. Injury curtailed Owen Magee and Josh Moffett’s potential involvement in the Irish U-21 side for their recent Four Nations tournament.
First up for them is a game against Cork C of I. They retained their Munster title with the minimum of fuss though they do come into the competition on the back of a first ever defeat to UCC. On the plus side, Stephen Parker has returned to the side after a couple of seasons with YMCA while teenager Simon Wolfe has made huge strides of late.
Irish record goalscorer John Jermyn’s threat from play and set-pieces and the quick hands of Stephen Sweetnam are among the other factors which should help C of I represent Munster well.
Annadale and Corinthian make up the group but will probably be considered outsiders at the outset. The former still remain in a dice for the fifth place in the Ulster Premier League and lie a long way off the top four after a mixed campaign. They have a very young squad and Michael Robson and Connor Roberts are fine talents but this competition may prove a tough prospect.Corinthian, meanwhile, ended their provincial season in seventh place and could well be without two of their leading lights. South African pair Jethro Eustice and Gowan Jones were both called into their national squad in preparation for this summer’s World Cup and so will have little to no opportunity depending on future selection for the IHL.
Karl Smith captains the team and they will hope to get off to a flyer against Annadale before meeting some of the big guns later in the group.
Men’s Irish Hockey League (Saturday)
Pool A: Cookstown vs Pembroke, 2.30pm, Steelweld Park; Instonians vs Lisngarvey, 2.40pm, Shawsbridge; Three Rock Rovers vs Cork Harlequins, 3.30pm, Grange Road
Pool B: Monkstown vs UCD, 2pm, Rathdown; Annadale vs Corinthian, 2.30pm, Lough Moss; Banbridge vs Cork C of I, 4pm, Havelock Park
Irish Junior Cup, quarter-finals, all Sunday: Banbridge vs Cookstown, 2.30pm; Cork Harlequins vs Instonians, 2.30pm, Farmer’s Cross; Lisnagarvey vs Pembroke, 2.30pm, Comber Road; Three Rock Rovers vs Monkstown, 3.30pm, Grange Road