IHL set-up has benefits but young players are held back
The recent formation of the EY Irish Hockey League is seen as a major success, with the overall standard unquestionably raised ... but there are growing fears that the set-up is diluting provincial clubs and leagues.
Warnings were issued at the outset that there was a danger of super-clubs being formed and those clubs left behind would struggle to hold their players.
There is no question the IHL has surpassed its objective already and been a major help to the international squad.
But the downside is player migration which weakens provincial clubs, and much of our young talent getting less pitch-time as they struggle to make IHL clubs' first-team panels.
The recent transfers of Annadale's Michael Robson to Lisnagarvey and Portadown striker Neil Gilmore back to Banbridge highlights the problem.
Since Annadale's relegation, they have seen three players move away - Peter McKibben and now Robson to Garvey and Matthew Allister to Bann.
Portadown lost Zach McClelland to Inst and Gilmore joined former colleague Jamie Wright at Bann while Mossley lost Joel Cathcart to Inst having previously lost Neal Glassey and James Lorimer to Garvey.
Inst lost Paul Gleghorne to Garvey while a provincial club but following promotion were able to snap up McClelland and Civil Service's Sam Brown.
The amalgamation of Hermes and Monkstown ladies down south is an example of super-clubs, so the problem isn't only in the north.
Take a look at the Irish U18s and, apart from Guy Sarratt, very few of the 36 get pitch-time at IHL level. Thankfully seven of the 14 from Ulster get senior action with provincial clubs.
Annadale's director of coaching Andrew Smyth wishes Robson well on his move but worries about the future.
"We pride ourselves on developing international players and are very proud of what Michael has achieved so far," he said.
"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.
"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 believe Michael will have an excellent career with Ireland but we also realise there are a lot of young players wanting to emulate him.
"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. That's because too many good young players are not getting enough pitch time."
In the meantime the IHL continues on Saturday and Garvey are out to gain revenge over Monkstown who knocked them out of the Irish Senior Cup.
Banbridge go to Railway Union while Instonians chase a first IHL win against Three Rock.