All-time high for Irish men but changing world game poses new challenge

Ireland’s place in the new world order is set for an intriguing couple of years with the news that the men have risen to an all-time high of tenth in the world rankings with the women dropping one notch to 16th.

That is because the world calendar is set to undergo a transformation in the coming years with Ireland’s capabilities to join the elite of the game set to be given a severe stress test.

The FIH’s “Hockey Revolution”, the world body’s long-term strategy to change the way hockey is presented, will kick further into gear in 2019 with the introduction of a world series of home and away fixtures.

The competition will feature a minimum of seven nations – which will be confirmed midway through next year – playing each other on a home and away basis.

The FIH’s David Luckes describes it as “the game-changer” adding: “It’s the first time any team sport has done anything as revolutionary as this in the context of a global league. That’s the concept we envision and this is a major part of the hockey revolution.”

The competition is set to “follow the sun” with northern hemisphere sides travelling to the southern hemisphere for standalone matches in February, March and April before swapping to the northern hemisphere with, for example, the likes of New Zealand, Argentina or Australia coming to Europe or the USA in May, June and July.

FIH chief executive Kelly Fairweather says that getting nations to play more regularly in front of big local crowds in one-off games, rather than tournaments with many neutral teams, is a key element to growing fanbases.

“This is about playing on home turf, in front of your home crowd. That’s what we see gets people going and we want to build fanbases in national associations. People rarely travel to, say, New Zealand.”

The key concern raised is the financial aspect; travelling from Europe to play one match in India, then on to Australia and New Zealand is a costly venture.

The Irish men have risen to 10th on the world stage. Pic: Yan Huckedubler

The Irish men have risen to 10th on the world stage. Pic: Yan Huckedubler

The FIH says that finances will be put in place to assist nations in taking part. Indeed, making the competition financially viable is a key part of the success of the competition.

Selection for the world series will be based on two criteria: one being performance on the world stage, the second being financial viability. Initial entrants will be included in the competition for the first four years.

For a federation like Hockey Ireland who have sought significant public funds – in 2012 for Champions Challenge I in Argentina and this summer for the Rio Olympics – there is a concern that the finances will rule them out of potential inclusion despite, particularly the men’s, rise to the edge of the world’s top ten.

Indeed, the Sport for Business group have also raised concerns over reputational damage to the OCI could lead to sponsors like Electric Ireland and Muller cooling their interest in supporting the organisation which would have a knock-on effect for Hockey Ireland. The men received an additional €50,000 in the lead-up to the Games from the OCI.

Similarly, Hockey Australia is also worried about impending cuts in their funding in line with their Winning Edge programme which allocates cash for Olympic medals.

“That’s part of the research we are doing at the moment to make sure this is financially viable for associations and is sustainable,” Luckes said. “There is no point doing this for one or two seasons. Whether it is financially viable is critical to it.”

Sarah Massey, the FIH’s Events and Marketing Director adds that there is an opportunity for national associations to use the new world series to leverage funding bodies.

“It’s all about hosting amazing event. One of our aims is to produce big, bold, packed and loud events. We need national associations to show they can do that with marketing and promotion to put bums on seats. It’s not just about ranking; it’s about delivering on the marketing and promotional side.

“Teams entering in 2019 will be in for four years. In order for them to build up their fanbase, their commercial structure and broadcast involvement up, we know there has to be consistent games at home.

Shane O'Donoghue in action against the Netherlands. Pic: Yan Huckendubler

Shane O’Donoghue in action against the Netherlands. Pic: Yan Huckendubler

“Being guaranteed to be in for four years sustains that. The national associations can see that if they are in for four years, they can go to their funding bodies and say we need a facility of this size and that is helping them to be able to get that funding.”

The hope would be that, in time, that 16 teams could eventually be viable entrants, leading to two tiers but, at the moment, the addition of new teams to the world series will be based on the viability of a country to stay involved for a number of years.

“There will be opportunities for teams to be added in and others may drop out after four years but its not as dramatic as promotion and relegation.”

Ken Read, the FIH’s chair of the competition’s committee, adds: “If you are the best performing team outside of the competition but are not financially viable to take part, getting in and then dropping out after three months because you cannot travel to Argentina, we have to be careful about that.”

It will have a knock-on effects for the qualification process for the Tokyo Games. For the 2018 World Cup, as before, the 2017 continental championships and the World League will provide the entrants for the expanded 16-team competition.

Ireland's penalty corner defence. Pic: Yan Huckendubler

Ireland’s penalty corner defence. Pic: Yan Huckendubler

The 2020 Olympics, though, come a year after the introduction of the home and away world series which will change the nature of the FIH’s calendar of international events.

World League Round 1 will stay in its current format with Round 2 featuring three events from which the top two in each moving on to an Olympic qualifying tournament.

The five continental champions will go direct to Tokyo. Along with hosts Japan, they will not, as currently with World League Round 3, need to take part in the Olympic qualifier.

“To get to the qualifying event, you have six from Round 2 and then the top four not already qualified from the home and away,” Read adds. “If they are the same as the ones as qualified from the continental championships, then you fill it up with the best finishers from World League Round 2.”

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