Monkstown and Lisnagarvey face off for the second time in as many weeks in the highlight of the final pre-Christmas men’s EY Hockey League schedule.
Two weeks ago, Town won at Comber Road 3-2 thanks to an early blitz that saw them 2-0 up inside three minutes but they know they will face an opposition bolstered since then with the arrival of Michael Robson from Annadale.
The Irish star – a member of the Rio panel of 19 – adds massively to their midfield options and his first appearance saw Garvey’s tricky recent run end with a first win in five, a 2-1 success against Instonians.
Robson’s move has added to the debate in Ulster that the national league will see the increased concentration of top talent in a smaller number of clubs with those that develop them from nursery level not getting to enjoy the fruits of their labour at adult level.
Robson follows Peter McKibben down the Comber Road while Matthew Allister switched from Dale to Banbridge during the summer. Similarly, Portadown is another Ulster Premier side to see their underage internationals move on in recent years with Zach McClelland going to Instonians while Jamie Wright – a couple of seasons ago – and Neil Gilmore have gone to Bann.
For Annadale, who rightly pride themselves on growing excellent underage talent, this is a big concern with long-time head coach Andy Smyth saying to the Belfast Telegraph: “The IHL has many on-field benefits to the national team but it has created a system where young players are being persuaded that they have to be seen in the IHL to progress their careers.
“We pride ourselves on developing international players and are very proud of what Michael has achieved so far. Watching someone who has been with you from primary school develop through the club to make an Olympic squad is a highlight in our short history.
“However, the pool of clubs seemingly able to supply to the national team gets smaller and smaller all the time. Michael will be a success regardless of his circumstances … sadly I can’t say the same for Irish hockey.”
The situation has been less pronounced this season in Leinster. Kevin Mullins’s switch from Clontarf to Three Rock and Richard Couse’s move from Avoca to Glenanne were the two main moves from the Leinster league to national level.
But this is not a new phenomenon with the likes of Fingal, Avoca, Weston and Suttonians – as well as Kilkenny – having seen many of their strongest products filtering through to populate clubs in the IHL and limited their ability to progress.
The flip side is that having a stronger top level league with more good players competing against each other regularly will ultimately raise the level for the national team. It will also encourage more players to remain in Ireland rather than moving to Europe in search of a level to raise their game.
For the Garvey game, Town will look to see the continued improvement from the likes of teenagers like Ross Quirke, Sam Hyland and Max Maguire – who has been hugely impressive between the posts in place of the injured David Fitzgerald.
The other three EYHL ties feature teams in the top half facing opponents in the bottom half. Three Rock travel to Instonians who have been pushing teams closer and closer to a scalp with four of their losses coming by just a single goal.
It will be a strong test for a Rovers side that features just three players aged over 23 with a quintet of teenagers central to their lively outlook. Rovers won through to the Neville Cup semi-final on Thursday night, using three of their first team squad: Garry Ringwood, Harry Morris and Raving Nair who scored his first two goals for the club in a 2-1 win over Fingal.
They will play Pembroke in the final four of that competition with Monkstown awaiting in the St Stephen’s Day final. They beat Railway Union 2-0 on Tuesday evening in the semi-final with Lee Cole and Matteo Romoli on the mark.
Railway host Banbridge who have been in flying-form in the first half of the season. Cork C of I, meanwhile, meet a Glenanne side at Garryduff who have the ability to cause plenty of problems for the top sides. The fixture between UCD and Pembroke – scheduled for Sunday – has been refixed for mid-January.
Men’s EY Hockey League (Saturday): Instonians v Three Rock Rovers, 1pm, Shaw’s Bridge; Railway Union v Banbridge, 2.15pm, Park Avenue; Cork C of I v Glenanne, 2.30pm, Garryduff; Monkstown v Lisnagarvey, 4.15pm, Merrion Fleet Arena
Semi-final: Monkstown 2 (L Cole, M Romoli) Railway Union 0
Quarter-final: Three Rock Rovers 2 (R Nair 2) Fingal 1