Renewed hope for Northern Ireland hockey's Commonwealth Games dream
After several unsuccessful attempts to secure the entry of Northern Ireland hockey teams into the Commonwealth Games, there are renewed hopes that the dream might become a reality in 2022.
The Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council (NICGC) has held discussions with the sport's local and national governing bodies, Ulster Hockey and Hockey Ireland, to determine if there was an appetite to continue to explore the possibility and received a positive response.
In return, the NICGC has pledged its support to help hockey's desire to be included in the next tournament in Birmingham.
However, it accepts that there would be many issues that would need to be addressed for the idea to become a reality, the main stumbling block being the fact that the national teams play on a cross-border basis.
That, in turn, means that Northern Ireland does not have a world ranking so there would have to be some sort of dispensation made by the International Hockey Federation (FIH).
Ulster Hockey Chair Billy Pollock and Executive Manager Jill Poots along with Irish Hockey Association Chair Brian Caruth represented hockey in the discussions with the NICGC.
"The notion of sending two Northern Ireland hockey teams to the Games is still on the agenda and, at present, we are working hard to help build the Ulster Hockey brand," said Pollock.
"Although there are logistical issues, competing in the Commonwealth Games would significantly raise the profile of the sport here."
The profile, in fact, has never been higher, on the back of the Irish women in lifting the silver medals at the World Cup and the men in reaching the showpiece for the first time in 28 years with a total of 15 Ulster players involved across the two squads.
NICGC Business & Operations Manager Conal Heatly is in full support of the idea of Northern Ireland competing in Birmingham and possibly beyond, while accepting there are obstacles to be overcome.
"The previous discussions around the Gold Coast Games in 2018 were too little, too late but there may be a possibility for Birmingham 2022 as we're at the beginning of the four-year cycle," he explained.
"In the case of hockey competing, this may be complicated due to the all-Ireland nature of existing squads.
"Additional coaching resources, training schedules, finance etc would have to be identified while operating within the wider system.
"Hockey Ireland would then need to engage with the FIH while we would work with the Commonwealth Games Federation.
"All parties would need to agree a process whereby a Northern Ireland team could participate in the qualification system which is currently based upon world rankings.
"Obviously, Northern Ireland does not have a world ranking so some 'virtual' system would be required.
"There are many 'ifs' and 'buts', but the NICGC continues to support all our member sports to take part in the Games."
Meanwhile, Ireland's women, with eight Ulster players in the squad - although Megan Frazer is out with a broken hand - finish their four-match series with Chile in Santiago tonight.
Ireland captain Katie Mullan said: "We have been training hard on the pitch every day with some gym sessions on top of the games.
"The conditions are hot, up around 30 degrees, but it's been excellent for us all getting together and playing and training at international pace in this climate."
At domestic level, Lurgan will be aiming to extend their lead at the top of the Ulster Premier League tonight when they host Mossley before facing Banbridge on Saturday.
Last season's runners-up Queen's remain the only unbeaten top-flight side after Tori Hastings, Alyssa Jebb, Jessica McMaster and Emily McStea scored in Monday's 4-0 win over Bann and the students are away to Randalstown on Friday night.
TONIGHT: International: Chile v Ireland (9.30pm)
Ulster Premier League: Lurgan v Mossley (8pm)
FRIDAY: Ulster Premier League: Randalstown v Queen's (7.30pm)
Senior One: Portadown v Club KV (8pm)
SATURDAY: Ulster Premier: Ballymoney v Dungannon (2.30pm); Lisnagarvey v Ballymena (2.30pm); Lurgan v Banbridge (2.30pm); Rainey v Mossley (4pm)
Senior One: Castle v Priorians (1pm); CI v Armagh (1pm); Coleraine v Raphoe (2.30pm); North Down v Omagh (1pm)