Hot on the heels of Ireland’s World Cup silver medal success, the EY Hockey League hits the turf in the coming weeks with the women’s competition set to tip off on September 29 with the men’s league starting a week earlier.
It is also a significant season with the national leagues expanding to incorporate a second tier, helping to bridge the gap from the regional leagues to the elite level.
Speaking at the launch of the EY Hockey League, Frank O’Keeffe, Managing Partner, EY Ireland said: “We are proud to support the evolution of hockey in Ireland through the introduction of a second division to the EY Hockey League. This investment in hockey at grassroots level will give players and clubs all over the country an opportunity to excel at their passion and to compete with the highest-performing teams in the sport. The success of the Irish Women in London this summer was a historic moment for Ireland, and we are delighted to be such a close ally to Irish hockey at this very exciting time for the game.”
The men’s EY Hockey League is shaping up to be another close-run battle with the action getting under way on September 22. Three Rock Rovers have won the last two EY Champions Trophy titles under the coaching of Niall Denham and will take on the mantle of favourites this season.
Indeed, they won an incredible six trophies last term including the Irish Senior Cup, the National Indoor Trophy and the EuroHockey Indoor Club Challenge II.
They have yet to win the EYHL regular season title, however, finishing second for the last two years. Mitch Darling, Luke Madeley, Ben Walker, Jamie Carr and Daragh Walsh make up a big international quintet while Mark English arrives after many years as Railway Union’s top scorer.
Glenanne won last year’s regular season with something to spare but they will miss the services of Shane O’Donoghue who has taken up a pro contract in Belgium with Dragons.
Banbridge missed the playoffs last season after a slow start but look well equipped to challenge this time with Eugene Magee, John McKee, Peter Brown and Bruce McCandless bringing lots of international know-how.
Pembroke are in a transitional phase with Kirk Shimmins and Alan Sothern moving to Belgium and Mark Ingram to Rotterdam but they do have a new coach, Paudie Carley, with lots of experience of winning top competitions at Serpentine Avenue.
Lisnagarvey are in a similar mode, looking to their youth section to replenish a first team that has seen key players move to Germany.
It means that if the likes of Annadale or Monkstown can put a run together, they can break into the playoff places. Dale, for instance, have brought in Ryan Getty and Andrew O’Hare from Lisnagarvey and Ryan Burgess from Bangor to complement their panel while Callum Robson is fit from the start of the season.
Town will miss Stephen Cole’s guile in midfield but his younger brother David and Dave Fitzgerald are strong personalities to make a difference.
Cork C of I are always a threat with John Jermyn – Ireland’s record goalscorer – continuing to be one of the league’s most threatening corner experts. They have the vastly experienced Denis Pritchard coaching them, taking over from Neil Welch.
Cookstown survived last season by a relegation playoff but have not seen many departures while Callum Anderson, Raymond Miller and Andy McWhirter are back in the mix. Michael Haycock takes sole charge of the side for a 13th year as coach with regular co-coach Stephen Cuddy taking a step back.
YMCA earned promotion with Ben Campbell a go-to man for goals as they spectacularly edged out Bangor for the ticket to the top. It will be their maiden EYHL season, replacing Railway Union and looking to make their mark.
The season follows the same format as the women’s competition with 18 rounds of regular season matches from which the champion will got Europe. The top three move on to the Champions Trophy along with the Irish Senior Cup winner or, otherwise, the fourth place league finisher.
In EYHL Division 2, Railway – coached by Kenny Carroll – will take their place in Pool A alongside a UCD side who have attracted flying full-back Mark Samuel from Three Rock. Bandon and Bangor renew acquaintances after a number of meetings last term.
The other four team group includes Instonians, Kilkeel, UCC and Corinthian. The top two from each group advances to the promotion playoffs with one automatic place in the EYHL available and another playoff spot against ninth in the EYHL on offer for a ticket to the top.
In the women’s EYHL, Loreto go into the season as reigning national champions having won the EY Champions Trophy last May, upsetting the odds after a fourth place finish in the regular season.
And they look to have strengthened for the new campaign with the arrival of Liz Murphy, an Under-21 goalkeeper who has earned international caps in the past year.
She joins Irish stars like Hannah Matthews and Ali Meeke in their line-up and rising star Sarah Torrans who came close to a call-up to the World Cup panel.
UCD – the regular season winners last year – will provide strong opposition but will face a year of rejuvenation with Deirdre Duke and Katie Mullan graduating to professional clubs in Germany after several years with collidge.
In Lena Tice, they will continue to have a World Cup star in their midst while nine of their panel were in the Irish Under-21 squad during the summer, showing the talent on the rise under coach Miles Warren.
Cork Harlequins were runners-up in both the EYHL and the Champions Trophy and they will hope to be there or thereabouts once again with Cliodhna Sargent available from the start of the season this time out.
The Cork side will miss the services of Roisin Upton who is back at her original club, Catholic Institute in Limerick, where she hopes to bolster their promotion bid from EYHL Division 2. Naomi Carroll, meanwhile, will undergo knee surgery but the return of All-Ireland camogie hero Orlagh Cotter is a big boost.
Pegasus have a high quality coaching panel on board with Greg Thompson joined by Andy Smyth, Arlene Boyles and Sharon Moffett. Kerri McDonald is their marquee addition as they look to turn strong runs into trophies after an Irish Senior Cup final and EY Champions Trophy semi-final run last term.
Railway Union just missed out on the playoffs a year ago by a single point but have recruited well with Niamh Sweeney, Cliona McCullough and Carolyn Crampton arriving from Trinity.
Belfast Harlequins enjoyed a solid season in mid-table last year and, with Zoe Wilson, Gemma Frazer and Lizzie Colvin forming an imposing spine to the team, they could be a surprise package.
Pembroke fall into a similar variety as Emily Beatty and Gillian Pinder are joined by fellow international Sinead Loughran. Tara Melvin – a member of the 2009 Colaiste Iognaid Kate Russell winning side – is back in Ireland after a spell in the English Premier Division with Bowdon while Lynne Froeschle is an eye-catching new name from Hamburg’s Club an der Alster.
Ards approach the season with a youthful side looking to learn quickly with a number of experienced heads moving on during the summer, offering opportunity for new faces to step in.
Muckross and Old Alex, meanwhile, were both promoted to replace Monkstown and Trinity in the top division. Muckross are coached by Sarah Scott and have completed a remarkable rise through the Leinster leagues to get back to the national stage they were central to in the 1990s, reaching six Irish Senior Cup finals in eight years.
Alex were part of the old IHL in 2014 before being rejuvenated under the tutelage of Lisa Jacob and Fiona Connery.
The season follows the same format as last season with 18 rounds of league games producing an EYHL winner who is guaranteed European hockey next season.
The top three from the league advance to EY Champions Trophy along with the Irish Senior Cup winner – should the cup winner come from the top three, fourth place in the EYHL earns the last playoff spot. Bottom place is relegated automatically while second last goes into a playoff tie to decide their fate.
Ten teams, split into two groups of five, will contest the newly introduced EYHL Division 2 which will serve as the avenue for the promotion places. Trinity, Corinthian, UCC, Queens and Greenfields will battle it out in Pool A.
Pool B features Catholic Institute, Lurgan, Dungannon, NUIG and Monkstown who welcome back Chloe Watkins after a year in the Netherlands.