New initiative sees Irish girls go semi-professional
Irish women's hockey is to take its first tentative step towards a semi-professional set-up with elite internationals to receive bursaries for the first time in the sport's history here.
In an exciting new development, coinciding with the arrival of new head coach Sean Dancer, it's thought that the move will be at least partly facilitated by a four-year funding deal for the senior women's programme with Dublin real estate firm Park Developments, which will be formally announced today.
The new scheme will undoubtedly further raise the profile of the sport, which reached new heights after Ireland's unprecedented silver medal success at last year's World Cup, with qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the next target.
Precise details of how the money will be allocated to the international players is as yet unclear but it's certainly a timely boost for the squad and Dancer.
The 44-year-old Australian, who is based in Belfast, arrived in the province last Thursday and took on a watching brief over the weekend at a squad session in Banbridge as Ireland prepare for next month's Olympic qualifier at the same venue.
Dancer has welcomed the new initiative which will mean top international players will no longer need to ply their trade abroad to be paid to play, like several have done already, including Ulster women Katie Mullan and Megan Frazer, who have just finished their seasons in Germany.
However, it's understood that those eligible for contracts will not be salaried as such, so it won't be a case of giving up the day job and making a living from the sport.
Nonetheless, it's a far cry from as recently as two years ago when the senior international players had to pay an annual levy of around £500 every 12 months just for the privilege of playing for their country.
Revealing the news yesterday, Dancer enthused: "It's great that Irish hockey is now starting to provide some sort of financial reward to a group of players who will train and go forward.
"To provide some financial rewards, going from a completely amateur programme to semi-professional is a really positive step, a move in the right direction."
Dancer won't take over the reins until after the World Series event in Banbridge from June 8-16 but he says he is excited about his new role.
The new man watched with interest and admiration as Ireland defied the odds to finish runners-up to Netherlands at the World Cup, having gone to London ranked second lowest of the 16 participating teams.
He added: "Certainly, if you'd asked me before the tournament, they certainly wouldn't have been on that list of potential medallists.
"For me, what was very interesting but also very pleasing, was watching every step along the way, they kept getting better and they kept fighting and took every step in their stride that they needed to and ended up with the silver medals."
Inter-pro results: Saturday: Ulster 2 (K McIlwaine 2) Connacht 2; Munster 2 Leinster 1; Munster 1 Ulster 0.
Yesterday: Leinster 2 Connacht 1; Munster 2 Connacht 1; Ulster 1 (C Whan) Leinster 0.