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Ulster in need of back-up strategy without the big guns in EY Irish Hockey League

By Graham Hamilton

The EY Irish Hockey League is three weeks into the new season and is already being hailed a success by the competing clubs from all over Ireland as they face each other on a home and away basis for the first time.

But, despite all the hype, there are still issues that need resolving as the provincial Branches struggle in the absence of their big guns.

Take Ulster for example. What contingency plan have they in place should one of their four men's teams or three women's teams get relegated from the all-Ireland set-up come May?

All being well that mightn't happen as all seven teams have started reasonably well in the opening period, particularly Ulster Elks who have won three out of three in the women's league with skipper Megan Frazer having five goals to her name already, and also Banbridge and Lisnagarvey men who have two wins from three.

But there's still a long way to go and anything could happen over the next six months.

And then there's the case of the diminishing number of senior clubs, particularly on the men's front.

Three years ago there were 10 Premier League teams, 12 Senior One teams and 9 Senior Two teams, a total of 31.

Today there are just over half that number - 10 in the Premier League and 8 in Senior One.

That's because the Big Four went to the IHL; Down, Ballymena, Omagh, Parkview, Saintfield, and now PSNI all dropped into junior hockey; and Newcastle and Larne fell by the wayside.

So although it's all looking good at all-Ireland level, it's not just so rosy at provincial level.

But what contingency plan, if any, do Ulster have should any of their teams get relegated from the all-Ireland set-up?

According to the IHL rules, the bottom team will face automatic relegation and the second bottom go into a play-off series also involving the winners of the various provincial leagues.

From an Ulster point of view, the worst possible case is that one of their teams finish bottom and are relegated, and another finishes second bottom but doesn't win the play-off series, nor does the new Ulster Premier League champions.

That would mean two Ulster teams dropping out of the all-Ireland set-up and none going up to replace them.

So what happens to the two relegated teams? And just where would they play their hockey next season?

The IHL covers that, in that a relegated team must return to its provincial set-up. But Ulster Hockey would have to make a decision on whether to welcome them back into their Premier League, particularly after they had snubbed their proposals in the first place and took up the IHL invite.

Part of the problem is that the new Ulster Premier League season started last week, so the current rules would see the normal promotion/relegation issues take place throughout senior level.

There shouldn't be a way to relegate additional teams to make way for any teams relegated from the IHL, and particularly as they had shown loyalty to the Ulster hierarchy.

But there appears to be no rule in place to simply add one or two additional teams to the current Premier League set-up.

Anyway, one team coming down would leave an odd number, which would be unsatisfactory, and two coming down would leave the Premier League top-heavy with 12 and, in the men's case, just eight in Senior One ... hardly a good balance.

Of course, it would be unfair to put any relegated IHL teams down into Senior One, but at the moment no contingency seems to be in place to cover such an eventuality.

Yes, it's an issue that needs addressed sooner than later before it rears its head.

Belfast Telegraph


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