To be a great champion, teams need great rivals. For UCD last season, while they won the three national titles on offer, it was the close margins that made their success so significant last season.
A last-ditch goal in the EY Hockey League against Hermes-Monkstown, a similar scenario in the Irish Senior Cup against Cork Harlequins and a shoot-out in the Champions Trophy – each trophy was won by the slimmest of differences.
As such, UCD enter this year’s EYHL as reigning champions but coach Miles Warren says that there is no chance his side can rest on their laurels.
“We don’t look back to last season because even though we have a lot of returning players, the dynamics in the group is going to be different so we can’t replicate exactly what we did,” he said of the season ahead.
“We have to see what works for this group and how they react. We start from scratch again.
“The likes of Railway, Loreto and Pegasus are all very strong, traditional clubs who you know will be good but it is always interesting to see who comes out of the pack and challenges the hierarchy.
“I think Pembroke and Belfast Harlequins will be the surprise packages. It’s the thing the EYHL has given us – every week will be really tough and this season will not be any different.”
UCD welcome Irish international Ellen Curran and Bethany Barr following four years in the US with the Liberty Flames with centre midfielder Gillian Pinder graduating and so moving on to Pembroke.
Warren feels his side will again be pushing for top honours but he believes that there are a host of challengers looking to knock his side off their perch.
At the moment, it looks like Cork Harlequins – their first opponent on Saturday – could be the ones to push them all the way. Julia O’Halloran’s return adds star quality while there is the possibility of Cliodhna Sargent and Roisin Upton forming a top class partnership having only played once together for the club last term.
Hermes-Monkstown will have a big job if they are to emulate their performances from recent years. Chloe Watkins and Anna O’Flanagan have moved to Bloemendaal in the Netherlands while Nikki Evans has gone to UHC Hamburg, meaning they have 65 goals from last season now on foreign shores.
With Sarah Greene, Eimear Horan and Curran also moving on, it will be a team in transition for Gareth Watkins as they travel up to Belfast Harlequins on day one.
Quins, themselves, are looking at the season in a diametrically different way following the big signings of Lizzie Colvin and Zoe Wilson. They will hope their quality can pull them well clear of last season’s relegation playoff travails.
Pembroke only escaped a similar fate thanks to a 2-0 win on the final day of the season over Ulster Elks, moving above Belfast Quins on goal difference. They have also made strong additions.
Pinder is the star attraction following her graduation from UCD while Emily Beatty – another international – returns to Ireland following a year with KHC Dragons in Belgium. They start their campaign away to Ards with Aisling Naughton and Ailbhe Coyle further strengthening their hand.
For Pinder, she envisages it being a hugely competitive campaign with any number of clubs having the chance to grow and challenge for the title.
“I have no idea who is going to be winning the title this year or who will be in the relegation battle. It’s going to be like the first year when – apart from Hermes who ran away with the title – every week, you could jump from seventh up to second. It was so tight and as this season shapes up, I would expect to see something similar.
“You get top class opposition every week and it’s rare that you will come across a team you will hammer or get hammered by. It’s always tight games, week-in, week out. For players coming up through the underage systems, they are now getting a much better standard when they come in.”
Pegasus confirmed the signing of Shirley McCay – Ireland most-capped sportswoman – from cross-town rivals Ulster Elks along with Lucy McKee. They host promoted Trinity on day one who are ambitious that they can carry the momentum through from last season.
Co-captain Niamh Sweeney said of the campaign ahead: “We are really looking forward to seeing how we stand up in the top division in the country, it’s an exciting time for Trinity Hockey and I can’t wait to see how far we can go.”
Loreto face Railway Union in a Dublin derby between fourth and fifth last term. Railway have Holly Jenkinson back after a couple of years in the US and Kate Lloyd returning from KHC Dragons in Belgium. Loreto, meanwhile, aim to build on their run to the playoffs in their first season since promotion.
** For an extended preview on each team in women’s EYHL, click the link below
Women’s EY Hockey League (Saturday): Ards v Pembroke Wanderers, 2.30pm, Londonderry Park; Belfast Harlequins v Monkstown, 2.30pm, Deramore Park; Loreto v Railway Union, 1.15pm, Beaufort; Pegasus v Trinity, 2.30pm, Queens; University College Dublin v Cork Harlequins, 1pm, Belfield