Following a stunning season to date, UCD are very much the team to beat in the women’s Irish Hockey League (IHL) that gets under way this weekend as Ireland’s top 12 teams battle it out for the top title in the club game.
The students have already annexed the Irish Senior Cup as well as the Leinster division one crown and will be hoping they can add a third piece of silverware to their collection over the course of the next six weeks.They start their Pool A campaign with a tricky tie against Hermes, the only side to have beaten them so far this season. That result came when the students were down their international contingent due to a training camp in January,
But UCD are a different proposition altogether with an array of Irish international stars on their books. Their forward line of Anna O’Flanagan and Nikki Evans is laden with class as they showed in the Senior Cup playoffs weekend, sharing five goals in the semi-final and final.
That ruthless streak is combined with a robust defensive line-up with Brenda Flannery and Niamh Atcheler’s distribution from the back, Sarah Greene’s gutsy determination and a feisty midfield, they have a superb combination that has seen them lose just once this season.
Hermes are a wily outfit, however, and have the country’s form striker in their ranks with Aine Connery bang in form. Their back line is one of the best around with Sinead McCarthy, Audrey O’Flynn and Christine Quinlan to the fore while Sara Twomey is emerging as a top midfield talent.
With a wealth of former UCD players in their ranks, they have plenty of know-how at their disposal while Emma Gray is the top goalkeeper in the country, making them a serious test for the students first up.
Greenfields become the first ever side from Connacht to compete in the IHL after a number of years of highly competitive performances in the Irish Hockey Trophy, a title they won last April with victory over Lisnagarvey.
They do have players with experience of the competition with former Loreto captain Clodagh Grealy – a winner in 2009 in the inaugural season – and Railway Union’s Sarah McDonald club members who have done well before.
Their opening encounter is on home turf against another side who made waves in the Trophy first before stepping up to the IHL stage, Limerick’s Catholic Institute, a repeat of their 2010 Trophy final.
Insta are still in with an outside chance of winning the Munster title if they can get a win against rivals Cork Harlequins. They have been buoyed by the return of Katie Campbell from the Netherlands after a half-season stint abroad and since her return, she has rekindled her excellent partnership with Naomi Carroll up front.
They will be without Roisin Upton, however, who has returned to the US after making an impact in mid-season following the end of her successful NCAA season with the UConn Huskies.
The Rosbrien will hope to get off to a strong start ahead of some really tough games in a group that also features last year’s double champions Railway Union.They may not be quite the force of a year ago with Cecelia and Isobel Joyce, Kate McKenna, Holly Jenkinson and Grace O’Flanagan not available. Kate Dillon, Julia O’Halloran and Emma Smyth form one of the most creative midfields in the country and will be keen to bounce back after a missing out on the Irish Senior Cup and Leinster league crowns,
Their first game is against Lurgan who also reached the Senior Cup semi-finals, only bowing out on penalties to Pembroke Wanderers after a tight tussle and so have good pedigree this term.
However, a number of their brightest stars from Lurgan High School who won two Kate Russell Cups in three years have moved on from the club in the past year to take up scholarships abroad. It means they have not felt the full benefit of an excellent crop of young players but they are an emerging force with Charlene Hull to the fore.
But they have a huge task ahead of them from what certainly looks the tougher pool.
Pool B is populated primarily by Ulster sides with Pegasus, Ards and Ballymoney joined by Cork Harlequins, Old Alex and Loreto.
Ards are coming into the competition hot on the heels of a stunning EuroHockey Indoor Club Champions Challenge I in Budapest in which they won six out of six games, earning promotion in the process.
Chloe Brown was their star, as she was for the Ulster U-21s in the recent interpros, picking up both the top scorer and player of the tournament prizes in Hungary. Naomi Elliott, Lynn Mills and Katy Bennett have all been part of the side that has been knocking on the door for the past few years and their Ulster Shield win in December shows their intent.
First up for them is a game against Ballymoney who they have beaten twice but only by a single goal this season so expect a tight game.
Money come into the competition off the back of three successive wins in their domestic league to put them in great shape to stay in the competition in 2014/15 after an indifferent middle section to their season. Nikki Parke is their go to player while Jess Lynch is another with plenty of experience.
Pegasus enter an IHL season without the talismanic Arlene Boyles for the first time after she stepped away from playing after many years of service packed with trophies.
They are still pushing Ards hard for provincial glory and have been boosted by the arrival of Irish U-18 internationals Robyn Chambers and Hannah Grieve.
Their campaign starts against a defensively sound Old Alex who have fought back after a tricky start to their Leinster league campaign to sit in fifth place. Shirley McCay is their midfield fulcrum while Sarah Canning and Laura Gray control the defensive unit with Pam Smithwick a top goalkeeper.Goals though are hard to come by for Didi Cole’s team, meaning their games are often decided by the minimum.
Cork Harlequins have been buoyed by yet another return to action by Karen Bateman and she proved critical in a recent 2-0 win over Catholic Institute in the Munster league, scoring both goals.
It is a result that has pushed them very close to winning that title with one game to go. Cliodhna Sargent is one of the country’s most gutsy defenders, closely followed by team mate Yvonne O’Byrne. If they can nab points on the road at Pegasus or on day one against Loreto will define whether they can progress.
Trevor Dagg’s Loreto are a much changed outfit this season with a transition based on injuries the enforced reasons. Nikki Symmons departed for Switzerland this term while Lizzie Colvin and Sarah Evans sustained season-long injuries.
Ali Meeke and Niamh Small are quality performers while Bryony Biggam, Ciara Vincent and Lauren O’Leary are the young stars on the rise. They make up an intriguing group though the sides who progress may well be underdogs when it comes to the semi-final stages.
Women’s Irish Hockey League
Pool A, Saturday: Greenfields vs Catholic Institute, 2.30pm, Dangan; Railway Union vs Lurgan, 2.30pm, Park Avenue
Sunday: UCD vs Hermes, 2pm, Belfield
Pool B, Saturday: Loreto vs Cork Harlequins, 2.30pm, Beaufort; Pegasus vs Old Alex, 2.30pm, Queens; Ards vs Ballymoney, 2.45pm, Ards Leisure Centre
Women’s Irish Junior Cup, quarter-finals
Saturday: Cork C of I vs Cork Harlequins, 12.30pm, Garrudyff; Pembroke vs Pegasus, 2.45pm, Serpentine Avenue
Sunday: Bandon vs Hermes, 1pm, Bandon GS; Queen’s Unie vs UCD, 1pm, Queen’s