Muckross striker Anna O’Flanagan says the spread of talent across the women’s EY Hockey League has made the national division as competitive as it has ever been.
Along with Deirdre Duke, Nikki Evans, Serena Barr and, most recently Edel Nyland, she is among a series of players to return to Ireland this term after a few years away.
In the past, such ability might have been be congealed in a select few clubs with the past four regular seasons all having runaway winners.
O’Flanagan was part of an unbeaten Hermes-Monkstown side who won the league by 12 points; a year later, UCD took the title unbeaten with them and Monkstown well clear of the rest. The students then won the league again by 11 points, only conceding nine goals, in the 2017/18 competition.
This season, however, only one game out of 39 played has had more than two goals in the difference and every club has endured a loss in the first eight rounds.
“The league is wide open and anything can happen,” she told the Irish Independent. “What’s great to see is compared to before I went to Holland, there was only a couple of teams where you would get a good game and it was very top-heavy.”
O’Flanagan was on the mark in a 1-1 draw for mid-table Muckross against leaders Pegasus, their fourth draw in eight outings.
Her side face bottom side Belfast Harlequins but fellow internationals Serena Barr and Lizzie Colvin could be in action but Beth Barr is likely to be out with injury.
While it is more competitive, O’Flanagan does feel there is work to do to raise the general level of play.
“We can still push the standard in Ireland; we can still play faster and push a more attacking style. You will still see teams defend deep and maybe that’s just an Irish style. But, having played in Holland, you know that your right and left back are big attackers as well.”
She was speaking at the announcement of Iwate Town as Ireland’s holding camp base for their Olympic campaign this summer.
At the event, it was also confirmed March’s training camp in Malaysia has been scrapped over coronavirus fears; an alternative camp is likely to be run in Durban instead with China, Japan and Great Britain possibly in situ for test matches.
Elsewhere in the EYHL, Pegasus and Old Alex is probably the tie of the round with second coming up against third place.
Nikki Evans has been reunited with her stick which did not initially arrive back from the South Africam tour but she still manage to net in the tie against Pembroke. It is also her first season playing with her younger sister Rebecca, their paths never intertwining before at club level.
“It’s been really enjoyable, nice to play with Rebecca which was a big pull! We didn’t overlap in school either – ‘play’ in the back garden might be a nice way of putting it. We are a highly competitive family, no doubt we were fighting away!
“I played with a lot of the girls in UCD and in Alex school so it has come full circle to be back in Old Alex. It’s a different challenge and really enjoyable to play with and against your friends and family.”
Catholic Institute will hope they can adapt quicker this week to a water-based surface as they go on the road to Pembroke in the women’s EY Hockey League.
A week ago, the sand-based Insta were caught cold in the opening minutes with Roisin Upton admitting her side took at least 15 minutes to get used to the UCD turf before putting it up to the students.
The tie was Upton’s first club game of the season following a broken wrist sustained in the Olympic qualifiers. She was delighted to wear the club jersey again at long last but the tie ultimately ended in a 2-1 loss which leaves the Limerick side in ninth place out of 10.
“It is our first season back in the EYHL and it has been very challenging,” she told Dublin City FM’s Declan Hughes. “We have a lot of young girls coming through who are growing all the time but we have to start taking points where we can.”
Pembroke is another water pitch so Institute coach Dave Passmore hopes that last weekend’s fixture can stand to his side but hopes they can have facilities to match in future.
“The way you defend on sand is very different but you have to be ready for any surface. We, as a club, and Limerick as a whole has to fight to get a water-based rather than using that as an excuse.
“UL have amazing facilities in every sport with a load of 3G but they chose to put down a sand based pitch which is no better than ours. It would make a great training base.”
A rejuvenated Cork Harlequins will hope they can build on last week’s win over Railway Union when they host table-topping Loreto with Cliodhna Sargent and Yvonne O’Byrne back in the line-up.
UCD host Railway Union in the other tie on the agenda in the national division. In Leinster, Corinthian made it 11 wins in a row, the longest winning start to a season for many a year [if you remember the year it last happened before, get in touch!] when they beat Avoca 2-0 on Monday with Cilia Holderman and Ciara Vincent scoring.
They go to Naas looking to continue the run. Chasers Trinity host Rathgar while Monkstown go to Avoca. Glenanne meet Genesis and North Kildare take their winning streak to Clontarf.
Women’s Saturday fixtures
EYHL Division 1: Belfast Harlequins v Muckross, Deramore Park, 2.30pm; Cork Harlequins v Loreto, Farmers’ Cross, 1.05pm; Pegasus v Old Alex, Queens University, 4pm; Pembroke v Catholic Institute, Serpentine Avenue, 2pm; UCD v Railway Union, Belfield, 4.20pm
Irish Hockey Challenge – Quarter Finals: Athlone v Blackrock, Athlone, 1pm; Bangor v Galway, Bangor Aurora, 3pm; Cork Wanderers v Greenfields, Farmers’ Cross, 1pm; NICS v Portrane, Stormont, 1pm
Leinster Division 1: Avoca v Monkstown, Sion Hill, 2.30pm; Glenanne v Genesis, St Andrews, 1pm; Naas v Corinthian, Naas SC, 12pm; North Kildare v Clontarf, The Maws, 2pm; Trinity v Rathgar Santry Avenue, 3pm
Munster Division 1: Limerick v Ashton, Villiers, 3pm
Munster Senior Cup, semi-final: Waterford v UCC, Newtown, 12.30pm
First Round: Cork C of I v Bandon, Garryduff, 2pm