Hockey: New Irish league on horizon
Hockey administrators are considering taking the radical step of introducing a full-blown all-Ireland league programme to replace the current Irish Hockey League series.
The new IHL campaign hits off this weekend but many officials feel the time has come to replace it soon with a new ten-team format with home and away games as opposed to the current format of the ten teams being split into two pools and the top two from each going into the semi-finals.
The idea behind the proposal is to cut down on the number of games that high performance players have to play in a season, thereby giving more time for training, peak fitness and the avoiding of injuries and fatigue.
At the same time the move would prevent the stop-start aspect for provincial league programmes and, with the IHL teams no longer involved at domestic level, it would also address the many mis-matches whereby the top five are vying for honours and the bottom five virtually in a league of their own battling to avoid relegation.
It’s a big step, though, and won’t necessarily receive the green light from everyone and that’s why the Irish Hockey Association will be running roadshows soon to guage reaction.
They will come north to Civil Service on November 16 and it’s important that the hockey fraternity here attend to air their views.
The advantages surrounding the proposals are there to be seen but there are also drawbacks, including prohibitive costs and also the break-up of the current provincial leagues.
Let’s take the benefits first.
The proposal would immediately reduce the number of matches for the top teams — for example, Banbridge played 35 games last season compared to Mossley’s 22, yet both were playing in the same league (Ulster Premier).
Less games would also hopefully reduce injuries; allow the calendar to be programmed better to reduce the congestion at the end of each season; and reduce the pull on top players.
It would also probably improve the IHL standard, potentially keeping more players in Ireland instead of playing abroad, and create a true all-Ireland programme and at the same time remove the two-step process whereby it takes two seasons for a team to become national champions (currently they have to qualify from their province one year to take part in the IHL the following year).
However, there are major disadvantages too. For example, the costs of an all-Ireland programme could be prohibitive to many clubs and indeed some players might not be able to commit to being away so many weekends.
There is also the chance that players will migrate to IHL clubs, leaving the other clubs weaker, diluting further the standard of provincial leagues.
And those teams who have numerous schools players in their ranks — Banbridge, Cookstown and Annadale are good examples in Ulster — could be disadvantaged, as it won’t always be possible to have them available for trips down south, especially as they often play Saturday morning games.
The proposals were first mooted over the summer and have been open for debate.
IHL teams would be permitted to play in the Irish Senior Cup and also their provincial cups but not in their provincial league.
The new IHL winners would claim the No.1 spot in European club competition and one suggestion is to have a finals weekend, taking in the second, third and fourth placed teams as well as the Irish Senior Cup runners-up to determine the second slot.
Yes, plenty to think about there. After the roadshows the IHA will analyse feedback and decide if a new format is the way forward ... or if it is all pie in the sky.