Women’s national league set for engaging first stanza

Pegasus carry the mantle of reigning national women’s champions as Irish Hockey moves into a new era this weekend with the EY Hockey League taking the stage for the first time.

Four Leinster clubs, three from Ulster, two from Munster and one from Connacht will battle it out over an 18-week regular season, vying for a place in the end of season EY Champions Trophy and become the first ever winner of the expanded competition.

The introduction of the EY Hockey League represents a vital step in raising the standard of the sport in Ireland, providing an elite level of competition with the best players in the club game meeting each week.

Stephanie Thompson raises the IHL trophy last spring. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Stephanie Thompson raises the IHL trophy last spring. Pic: Adrian Boehm

It is the first time that Irish hockey will embrace a full-season, all-island and Pegasus – as winners of the short-form Irish Hockey League last May – start with a tasty all-Ulster clash at Ards. Pegs’ coach Arlene Boyles says that the new league will have a huge impact on the hockey landscape on the island.

“We want to pit ourselves against the best opposition, week in, week out, and help inspire and create the next generation of interpro and international players.

“It is very different but it should be grasped with both hands. It provides an opportunity for clubs and players to develop on an All-Ireland stage,” said Boyles in the build-up to the competition.

Former Irish captain Alex Speers leads the Pegasus line in unison with Suzanne Beaney and Vanessa Surgeoner with Stephanie Thompson pulling the strings.

They meet an Ards side that they lost to 2-1 last weekend at the preseason Marie Curie Cup in Lisnagarvey, a tie that suggests their meeting on Saturday in the opening EY Hockey League game will be a cracker.

Ards’ diminutive striker Chloe Brown missed that game through injury but will be a key figure for them throughout the season, as will Sara Alexander, Caroline Adams, Kerri McDonald and Scarlett Holdsworth.

UCD and Hermes is the big Dublin derby, pitching two sides who have shared many players over the past decade with many of the latter having graduated from Belfield.

This season is no exception with the vibrant international triangle of Anna O’Flanagan, Chloe Watkins and Nikki Evans all making the short hop to Booterstown to play for Hermes after glittering careers with the students.

Naomi Carroll on the attack for Hermes in preseason. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Naomi Carroll on the attack for Hermes in preseason. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Key defender Sarah Greene makes the same move and Clare native Naomi Carroll moving to Dublin to Hermes, too, and Liz McInerney returns to the club after a successful spell in Syracuse in the US. It means the Leinster league and cup champions have made a huge amount of big signings and look to be a contender for the ultimate prize.

Under new coach Miles Warren, UCD have, themselves, made a number of additions to try and fill the void created by their graduates. Kate Lloyd is an important addition while Aisling Naughton – the top scorer in Leinster last year – will be a speedy fulcrum to their attack.

Lloyd joins Irish international team mates Katie Mullan, Emily Beatty, Gillian Pinder and Deirdre Duke. It makes for an explosive fixture at the National Stadium which will give a first assessment about how well the two sides are adapting to their new line-ups.

Both Cork sides – Harlequins and UCC – are on the road for the opening weekend. Quins, Munster’s regular leading lights, have made extensive additions to their squad for the 2015-16 season with Katie Campbell (Catholic Institute) and Olivia Roycroft (Bandon) among the marquee names.

Rachel Hobbs is back after a year out to have her first child while Irish Under-18 goalkeeper Emma Buckley is likely to don the number one smock following Vanessa Sargent’s retirement. Irish vice-captain Cliodhna Sargent is the stand-out in defence.

The vastly experienced Rachael Kohler and Karen Bateman bring a huge amount of know-how while Stephen Dale, in his sixth year at the helm, has a huge amount of coaching insight.

Their first test is a trip to a well-heeled Railway Union team that will have full access to recently retired Irish duo Kate Dillon and Emma Smyth.

Imparting knowledge to the next generation will be on the agenda for them with a glut of strong young players rising through the ranks. Colm Blennerhassett has taken on the coaching role following spells with UCD and Corinthian.

Natalie Fulton has returned to Pembroke. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Natalie Fulton has returned to Pembroke. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Galway’s Greenfields – coached by Deirdre McDermott – come into the competition as the Connacht league and cup champions for the past two seasons.

The emerging club have been growing on the national stage and became the western province’s first side to play in the IHL in the past couple of seasons.

Just one win has been forthcoming to date but a draw at Ards last season and a competitive showing on the road against Ulster Elks show they are improving quickly.

Their opening game is a key one, meeting UCC at Dangan in round one of the new league. The students have added a number of new freshers but the departure to Dublin of Amy Kate Trevor is a loss.

She will play with Pembroke’s ever-improving side – coached by Keith Crawford for a fourth season.

They travel to Ulster Elks with a couple of strong additions. Natalie Fulton – previously a South African international who used to be player coach at Pembroke – has rejoined the club after a spell in her homeland.

Claire Mulcahy misses the first part of the season through injury and the side will look to Orla Macken, Laura Hanlon and Erika Hinkson for their impetus.

The Elks, the Irish Senior Cup champions, have a European trip on the horizon this season and a couple of the island’s biggest stars in their line-up. Irish captain Megan Frazer brings her dynamic presence to the fray while Shirley McCay – the most capped female player – has experience to burn either at the back or down the left flank.

Gemma Frazer is another important component in Ricky Lee’s side. The coach has been at the heart of the Elks rise from the lower tiers to the very top of the game and he will be keen to see his side push for the national title.

The league sees these ten sides meet on a home and away basis with the top placed finisher qualifying for the EY Hockey Champions Trophy, the end of season playoffs and qualifying for European competition.

Second and third in the league will also qualify for the EY Hockey Champions Trophy along with the winner of the Irish Senior Cup. Should the cup winner be one of the top three sides in the League, then fourth place will complete the Trophy line-up.

That final four will playoff for the national title in an end of season finale.

In terms of relegation, tenth place in the regular season will return to their provincial league to be replaced by the winner of the EYHL provincial playoffs. Ninth place goes into the playoffs with the runner-up of the EYHL provincial playoffs.

** To read about each team’s prospects and new players for the upcoming season, we have the lowdown on all the runners and riders for the first ever women’s EY Hockey League

Women’s EY Hockey League, fixtures (Saturday): Railway Union vs Cork Harlequins, 2.15pm, Park Avenue; Greenfields v UCC, 2.20pm, Dangan; Ards vs Pegasus, 2.30pm, Ard LC; Ulster Elks v Pembroke, 2.30pm, Jordanstown; UCD v Hermes, 2.45pm, Belfield

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