Cork C of I’s men and UCC’s women were awarded the Munster Division One titles last weekend on a percentage basis having both run up perfect records in the top provincial competition.
For both, though, the abrupt end to the season meant both frustratingly missed out on the closing stages of EYHL2 and a shot at promotion back up to the top tier EYHL1.
Nonetheless, in the circumstances, both team’s coaches felt it was probably a reasonable outcome in difficult circumstances with no easy options.
For C of I, they had won nine out of nine Munster games, six points clear of Bandon with three matches left on their schedule. They were also assured of an EYHL2 playoff place with a game to spare as they endeavoured to make an instant return to EY1.
“It would have been lovely to finish the season unbeaten; we had a 100% record at that stage so if they were going to award anything, they didn’t have too far to look,” coach Denis Pritchard said, reflecting on the season.
“The playoffs of EYHL2 were the target before the season and we had set ourselves performance targets to go with that. When the chance of going to EY1 was gone by [Hockey Ireland] declaring the league null and void, it was nice to win the league but we have to do it all again now and are back to where we were.
“I don’t think Hockey Ireland had a lot of choice; how could they relegate some teams and promote others on two thirds of a season? The way they did it will piss off, probably, the least amount of people, only annoying the teams that were winning. The rest are no worse off than they were.”
Pritchard was thrilled with how his side bounced back from relegation with several new and returning additions to the panel making for a much more competitive panel at Garryduff as Phil, Rob and Stephen Sweetnam, Mark Collins and Eoin Finnegan bolstering the ranks.
“We had turned things around from last season in a variety of ways down to the number of people training and available for games. Standard of performance was better – albeit at a lower level – and we addressed a lot of what we needed. It all counts for nothing other than we know we can do it next year, whenever that starts.
“But it was enjoyable season; we only lost to Garvey and that was by less than a lot of the teams in EY1.”
Those good vibes extended into the second and third teams who completed a clean sweep of the Munster men’s divisions. Pritchard is on board again as head coach and is keen to make the best of the new normal, whatever that may be.
“As a coach, you are always planning. We will get a bit of notice [when we can return] and Hockey Ireland are not going to just say ‘you are back tomorrow’. We will likely get three weeks of notice, probably with certain restrictions.
“I know it’s not a contact sport but you can’t play without contact so social distancing would be impossible [without restrictions]. It’s also amateur sport and not like the Bundesliga where they can stay in a hotel for two weeks or things like that.
“Defending a corner on a Sunday and then back to work on Monday – it’s not viable. It’s difficult to manage but, in the scheme of things, it’s also probably not the most important thing.”
Pritchard has been approached to see if he would support a full-season men’s EYHL2 but his personal opinion is one of reasonable scepticism about the benefits for the local game.
“From a Munster point of view, there is very little benefit for an EY2. You multiply all your travel by four times while you still play the best teams in the competition anyway.
“All we would be doing is playing those teams more often and travelling away from Cork every second weekend.
“It may be no skin off the nose for a Dublin team because 80% of matches are on their doorstep. There was some surprise about that attitude because they thought I would jump at it because it would be better competition but I think EY1 is enough.
“The lure of it will drive EY2; there is a sense if you made it full season, some teams would be happy out and would think they don’t need to go any higher.
“And eventually EY1 suffers because the ambition to get there isn’t as great as it should be while the attrition rate for EY2 would be too high for what you are going to gain out of it.
“A lot of players would not play it if they had two small kids and were away every second Saturday which is fully understandable. At the moment, it is only one league which is putting those strains on people and the expense of it. It costs about €20 a head by the time you have petrol and a couple of meals on the road.
“If you are at the highest level, it’s different. But if the only option you have in Munster is EY2, you are going to lose players and won’t drive standards on it.
“That’t just my take on it and not speaking for C of I but is based on talking to players; there’s only so much you can ask of them.
“[Last season], we had to play five sets of back-to-back matches. You can’t play any midweek games; there’s a huge difference trying to play Saturday-Sunday and Wednesday-Saturday. It was not an option to us when we were in EY1. There’s a lot of things that tip the balance to Dublin teams.”
For UCC’s women’s coach Graham Catchpole, they were also within touching distance of the Munster title with nine wins from nine and a six point buffer to C of I.
“We would have been confident that we would have gone on to win the title,” he said of the local campaign. “We did have some very tough games like against Belvedere and Bandon in particular which went down to the wire. The girls will feel they did enough to win and hopefully just rewards.
“It’s really unique times and an unusual way to win the league title. Nonetheless, it is a nice reward for the work the squad have put in over the course of the season and it is nice to be recognised.”
In terms of the EYHL2 playoff hunt, they sat in third in their group behind Ards and Monkstown but still had ambitions – and a mathematical chance – of a late season tilt at a top two spot.
“When we sat down at the start of the year, that was certainly a target to get to the finals weekend. We had performed well in all those EY2 games and put ourselves in with a shout with two games to go. We did feel we owed Ards after they beat us up there and then had Queen’s away, one which we edged at the Mardyke so destiny was still in our own hands.”
Like Pritchard, he is intrigued to see what the future holds, particularly for college sides, when the dust settles and the return to play comes into sight.
“We don’t know how things will change for a college side. If learning goes online and college accommodation gets limited, you could see students stay at their family home in Limerick or Tipp or Waterford. Our squad at the moment is half-Cork, half-outside of Cork, so we don’t know what will happen there and it could lead to changes.
“The PE department have had regular meetings, teasing out what sport will look like in the future. Paidi Hartnett has the information there but the truth of the matter [like everything] is they have to wait and see.”