How do you attract talented players when you have three other hockey clubs on your doorstep and one of them is Pegasus? Belfast Harlequins believe they have found the answer: ‘Grow your own”!
Pegasus play their home matches just a few hundreds metres away at Upper Malone but even the perennial Ulster champions would be envious of the facilities at nearby Deramore Park.
The club has a brand new pitch at the south Belfast venue and a club house that is second to none with a fabulous bar area which will host a special Hallo’ween bash on Saturday night.
The first eleven hope to be celebrating at the double because a few hours earlier they have an intriguing engagement with the only other Harlequins hockey team in Ireland, the one that hails from Cork.
It is an Irish Senior Cup first round tie and normally the Munster side would go into the match as odds on favourites but ‘Quins will be hoping to spring a surprise on them.
They go into the fixture on the back of a four game unbeaten run and they already look more than capable of avoiding the drop straight back into Senior One having been promoted at the first attempt earlier this year.
That may have surprised some people especially as ‘Quins have lost several of last season’s regulars and teams that come up very often go straight back from where they came.
But therein lies a clue to just why Harlequins can continue to be successful as they rely largely on home-produced talent and have grown the reputation of having one of the most successful youth strategies in the country.
Collegians women’s hockey club changed it’s name to Harlequins back in 1999 when the rugby club merged with North of Ireland.
“We have a unique blend of schoolgirls, twenty somethings and the not so young with our most mature playing member at 62 years old which gives the hockey club the magic mix of youth and experience.” explained ‘Quins Junior Development Coach Roisin Walsh.
Harlequins is one of Ireland’s longest established women’s hockey clubs and currently boasts five ‘senior’ teams competing from Premier League to Junior 5.
In the old Collegians days players had to have a connection with Methodist College and whilst there is still a strong link with the College, today’s Harlequins players come from all over.
“However ‘growing our own’ via a very vibrant youth section is arguably what has given the club its current strength in depth.” Roisin added.
“When Ulster Hockey began its underage leagues, Harlequins responded to the challenge and as grassroots hockey has grown so has the ‘Quins Junior Section.
“The club started with about 15 players 10 years ago and has grown to the current numbers of 100 girls aged between 10 and 15 gracing the Deramore pitch every Sunday afternoon.
“Apart from the obvious aim to promote hockey, the Junior Section has paid dividends in providing players to the senior teams once they reach 15.
“Being in a position to offer a high standard of hockey from first eleven right up to fifth eleven allows the schoolgirls to find a suitable level, playing hockey with more experienced players and not just with their peers.
“However the most valuable benefit is loyalty! When ‘Quins dipped out of the top tier last season for the first time in 17 years, players like Ruth Millar had other options but chose to stay.
“Ruth was one of Harlequins founder junior players and last season she led the first eleven to one of their most successful set of results and some silverware.
“Ruth and many of the other ex-juniors now turn out on a Sunday to help coach and identify the current talent - giving something back to the Club.
“Indeed, Ruth, along with one of our other former U18 Ulster players, Jenna Watt, successfully coached last season’s U15s to victory in the Ulster Cup competition.
“The final against Lurgan was a pacy, skilful affair and a great advertisement for U15s hockey.
“That U15s team boasts two of last season’s Irish U16s, Katie Larmour and Rosie Henderson and along with Rebecca Lobo they were Harlequins contribution to the recent U16 and U18 Interpro squad.
“Other junior alumni include Zara Thom who played in the recent U18s Europeans in Dublin, Helen Dawson (Ulster U18s), Sylvia Rose and Nicole Morrow.
“Nicole and Ruth have been with the club since they were just 11 years old while Jenna Watt, Laura Wilson, and Amy and Lucy Geddes, all first team regulars, joined when they were 15.
“But no junior section exists without the volunteers and our former juniors leave their own legacy by passing on their skills and advice on Sunday afternoons to become true role models for the aspiring youth.”
Harlequins has a unique blend of youth and experience coaching, playing and administering which keeps them strong in all the leagues.
And it’s now up those young representative players and their peers to fulfil the legacy and help bring future success in the Premier League and, of course, the Irish Senior Cup starting with Saturday’s unusual Quins versus ‘Quins showdown.
Cork Harlequins - you have been warned!