A new season and a new entity could potentially lead the way in the second edition of the women’s EY Hockey League as reigning champions Hermes have amalgamated with Monkstown during the summer.
The new conjoined club goes into the new season as the clear favourites following a dominant 2015/16 campaign for Hermes, winning the regular season title last year by 12 clear points before taking the EY Champions Trophy with playoff wins over Ulster Elks and Pegasus.
Their attacking triangle of Chloe Watkins, Anna O’Flanagan and Nikki Evans for 63 goals last term as they blitzed the field. International team mate Naomi Carroll has moved on to Cork Harlequins in one of the moves of the summer but there is a glut of young stars like Ellen Curran, Suzie Kelly and Amber Barnwell with an extra year’s experience under their belt to improve their lot further.
Pegasus – last year’s finalists – are looking to close the gap. They will do so with a new coach as last season’s assistant coach Alison McNeill takes on the main role following Arlene Boyles’ decision to step down and focus on her coaching role in the Irish senior women’s set-up.
The Ulster side’s main signing is Michelle Harvey after three seasons playing with KHC Leuven in Belgium. She starts the season with an ankle injury but could make an impact as time goes on. Robyn Chambers returns to the club after a year with Ulster Elks, bringing Dawn Axon with her while Katy McKee – from Lurgan – is another good addition.
Leah Paul moves the other way, joining a much changed Elks side who will have a completely new look to their line-up this season. Last term, they won the Irish Senior Cup title for the second successive year but their side will be almost unrecognisable from those vintages.
Long-term coach Ricky Lee has been replaced by Davy Menaul in the hot seat. Out go Kirstie Lammey, Danielle Wilson, Lyn Brown, Axon and Jessica McMaster along with the key trio of internationals Gemma Frazer (Belfast Harlequins), Rebecca Barry (Cork Harlequins) and Irish captain Megan Frazer who is playing with Mannheimer in Germany.
Incoming are 10 newcomers. French international Andrea Desneaux returns to the club to add a cosmpolitan flavour with Megan Rogers from the US and Danni Wilson from South Africa joining Canadian powerhouse Anna Kozniuk.
Young stars like Emma Quinn and Leah Paul add to their mix which Menaul will be looking to mesh together quickly ahead of a season-opener against their local rivals Pegasus on Saturday before hosting a Cork Harlequins filled with new talent.
Indeed, the Cork side – the last remaining Munster side in the competition – have been the most active in the summer swaps. In addition to Irish players like Carroll and Barry, Roisin Upton will arrive at Farmer’s Cross during the season when she completes her college commitments with the UConn Huskies where she won an NCAA title.
Former German international Lina Geyer is another big addition with over 100 caps to her name. Stephen Dale coaches the side for a seventh season while manager Robert O’Sullivan has been in situ for eight years and the latter says the side will be looking to have a greater sense of consistency this season after a mixed bag last time around.
“While on any given day, Quins were a match for most teams last season, their lack of consistency & squad depth would ultimately count against them. However, this looks to have been addressed during the off season with some key additions,” he said of the new panel.
They look set to be battling it out for a playoff place in what could be a titanic tussle. Railway reached last year’s EY Champions Trophy with a third place finish. Anna-May Whelan is their marquee signing following her Irish senior debut in the summer while UHC Hamburg’s Maja Heiden could also prove a big addition.
On the coaching front, head coach Colm Blennerhassett has brought in the goalscoring expertise of Jean McDonnell as a specialist coach while Jody Hosking is his new assistant to give plenty of know-how to a side packed with young talent. They have seven Leinster Under-18 panelists while 17-year-old Niamh Carey has been brought into the Irish Under-21 selection.
Newly promoted Loreto will be looking not just to consolidate a position in the league but to also make an impact. They arrive in the national league with an array of top talent with all 18 of their front-line panel having played for Ireland at some level, be it senior or underage.
They will miss Lena Tice who has picked up an elite scholarship with UCD but the likes of Ali Meeke, Lizzie Colvin, Hannah Matthews and Hayley Mulcahy along with the experience of Louisa Healy and Nikki McConnell mean they can cause plenty of problems.
In addition to Tice, UCD have kept five of their senior internationals while Emma Russell – following a successful stint in the US with Syracuse – is back in Ireland after four years. The departures of Emily Beatty, Kate Lloyd (both to Belgium) and Elaine Carey (USA) will be keenly felt.
At Pembroke, Elun Hack is the new coach in charge and has 10 new players at his disposal to cope with the retirements of Sarah Clarke and Natalie Fulton while goalkeeper Stella Davis is replaced by Tiffaney Ellis.
Ards will be hoping for a less nervy end to their season this time around after a brief flirtation with the relegation playoff position before eventually prevailing. Chloe Brown, with 14 goals to her name, was their key player.
Belfast Harlequins, meanwhile, complete the table following their dramatic win over UCC to secure their place in the top tier. Gemma Frazer is a huge addition to their squad having captained Ulster Elks to Senior Cup glory and will look to get the likes of Jenna Watt firing in front of goal.
Season openers do not come much bigger than Hermes-Monkstown but it will give them an early taste of the challenges that lie ahead.
Women’s EY Hockey League
Saturday: UCD v Ards, 2.50pm, Belfield; Loreto v Cork Harlequins, 1.30pm, Beaufort; Pembroke v Railway Union, 2pm, Serpentine Avenue; Belfast Harlequins v Hermes-Monkstown, 2.30pm, Deramore Park; Ulster Elks v Pegasus, 2.30pm, Jordanstown
Sunday: UCD v Loreto, 2pm, Belfield; Ulster Elks v Cork Harlequins, 1pm, Jordanstown; Ards v Hermes-Monkstown, 1.30pm, Londonderry Park; Pegasus v Pembroke, 2.30pm, Queen’s; Railway Union v Belfast Harlequins, 4.15pm, Park Avenue