On paper, the influx of four front-line internationals into the guts of an already strong team was bound to make Hermes major contenders. Managing to get the gelling from day one, though, was a massive task for coach Rudi Wortmann but one that has laid the base for their spectacular campaign to date.
In total, nine players came in during the summer with Anna O’Flanagan, Nikki Evans, Chloe Watkins and Sarah Greene all returning from UCD while Naomi Carroll, Ellen Curran, Amber Barnwell, Liz McInerney and Sally Campbell arriving.
Several moved on for different reasons including Megan Tennant-Humphreys, top scorer Aisling Naughton, Kerry McComish, Aine Connery and Sam Willis.
It meant wholesale changes and Wortmann pin-points this as one of the key aspects to his side’s success to date this season. The inaugural EY Hockey League title is in the bag with four games to spare, amassing 13 wins and just one draw.
They play an Irish Senior Cup semi-final against Ards on Saturday and have a ticket to the EY Champions Trophy in the bag. Their only setback came in a shoot-out last Sunday against Railway Union in the Jacqui Potter Cup semi-final.
“Creating a team environment where the strength of all players can contribute to the team success; we’re still working hard on this process,” he told The Hook.
“The integration was complex enough but, because of the willingness and determination of all players involved, we managed to create an atmosphere that have helped us to play as a team.”
He says goalkeeper Emma Gray has been a huge influence from this perspective while there is lots of experience at the top level around the set-up to ease in the variety of newcomers.
“She has so much experience in dealing with elite players and with club players. She’s also seen and managed younger players coming through in past.
“This unity between Emma and myself has been a key factor. We’ve worked together on several occasions and think about a lot of topics the same way. Joan [Morgan, the manager] has such wealth of experience and has helped us with the integration of the younger players.
“Ellen Curran, Suzie Kelly and Sally Campbell have been very, very good. You can see their level rise by the week. Liz Murphy improved and she’s been great in goals for our seconds and during the Jacqui Potter cup matches.”
The side now, clearly, have a good understanding and Wortmann says the side now need to “fine-tune a few things” in their remaining matches, especially with such a long lead-in to the EY Champions Trophy.
After their breathaking run, Hermes now have a quandary in how they approach a run-in to the season. All guns blazing is the obvious answer for Saturday’s Irish Senior Cup tie with Ards.
Three league matches follow in quick succession before a potential Senior Cup final on March 20th, before they have a six week spell leading up to their next meaningful ties in the EY Champions Trophy.
“First and foremost, we need to make sure we keep improving in areas we know we can improve. Slacking now means having to rebuild the level at a later stage. On the other hand, we have quite some weeks to go before the play-offs.
“One great thing is we still have the Irish Senior Cup semi-final and, hopefully, the final to play before the EY finals. We need to keep our levels up and work towards certain ‘high’ points – like the semi-final, hopefully the final. One thing I always keep in mind is that we always want to improve.
“If we do not improve, we become stale and the urge of improving (and winning) falters and before you know, you’ve dropped a level.
“We will try a few things out in order to improve or gather information on what works and what doesn’t. We already did this in a few matches when we knew it was hard to lose the title.
“We will keep doing this but we still want to win all matches. We’ve been undefeated, with two draws. The Jacqui Potter draw against Railway was particularly good against a team currently third in the league and missing eight players that usually start.
“By winning all matches so far we’ve taken a lot of points from teams that are still fighting for the second and third place remaining play-off spots. In order to keep it fair, we have an obligation to field our strongest team any time we go out when we play matches in the IHL.
Looking to the Irish Senior Cup semi-final against Ards, he says that the Ulster side are “serious contenders”.
“They might be seen as underdogs but that is not the way we see them and we will treat them with utmost respect. Winning the league was great but for a lot of players, the Irish Senior Cup is the ultimate goal.”
Reflecting on the nature of the new EYHL format, Wortmann would prefer if the league was ultimately decided by a regular season rather than the biggest European spot going to a playoff winner.
“Playoffs are nice but, in my opinion, it’s not the right format. Us winning the league by quite some points ahead of the number two doesn’t directly mean we win the league outright.
“We need to play two matches in the play-offs which, to me, looks more like a cup match than league deciding matches. There is no room for error and it means that it is out of our control that we could maybe not win the league while we have proven to be the most consistent club in the country.
“The league win should be the club which is most consistent over a period. The cup is different and has to do with playing five finals before a team is crowned winner.”