Proposals for restructured IHL under discussion

Premiership teams are concerned about the impact a new IHLleague could have on the local game
Premiership teams are concerned about the impact a new IHLleague could have on the local game

Ulster Hockey agrees in principle that the current format of the Irish Hockey League needs to change.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done before that can happen.

And that was the message that came from the 100 club attendees who turned up on Monday night at Deramore Park to air their opinions on the proposals – set out by the IHA for a new restructured IHL.

But there was also a strong message that the IHA should learn from the mistakes of Irish Rugby when they restructured their league system to move to an All-Ireland League.

Since the IRFU changed their league format back in 1990/91, they have had to undergo several major amendments to the league system – and it is rumoured that it could change again.

At the meeting only one Premiership club wanted the IHA proposal implemented in full, whilst the other Premiership clubs expressed concern at the impact that a new IHL league could have on the local game in Ulster.

And there was a general feeling that the new league, if it does come to fruition, should not be implemented before the 2015 season at the earliest.

Yes, we want to close the gap on how we compete against other international teams, and yes we need to enhance the skills set of our international players.

But do we really want to do this at the detriment of the local game, which could go into free-fall and see players leave the sport in their droves?

It’s all about finding a balance.

Unlike rugby, where schoolboys cannot play for the Ist XV, hockey needs schoolboys and most Premiership teams and even junior teams have schoolboys in their 1st XI.

Remove them from the equation and where does that leave hockey? The new IHL will not only impact on schoolboys but it will impact on a vast array of players who work and could not give the commitment that would be required, especially as teams will have more travelling to do.

They will either drop down to their second string or simply have to leave the sport.

Junior clubs also had strong opinions as the proposal will see the reformatting of the current Ulster league system.

One club spokesman said: “We are striving to better ourselves and get away from playing on shale pitches. This restructure will suck us back into a league that we are trying to get away from.”

There was a wide range of concerns raised, from increased costs and migration of players to top sides, elitism, impact on schoolboys and even the demise of clubs.

The proposal would see five of Ulster’s top teams removed from the current Ulster premiership to play in an all Ireland League against Leinster’s top five and Munster’s top two.

This would then see the remaining five clubs from the Premiership joining with the top five Senior One teams to form a new Senior One League, and the remaining 12 clubs forming a new Senior Two.

In principle, the team that wins Senior One would have the opportunity of being promoted into the IHL, but it still has to be decided as to how that would happen.

There was a strong opinion that the Ulster Premiership should remain in situ, even if there is an All Ireland League formed.

However, what became apparent from Monday night’s meeting was that there are viable alternatives that need to be explored. Numerous ideas were either shared with the group, or produced post meeting, showing how perhaps all stakeholders in this shake-up could be accommodated.

A number of leading Ulster clubs have backed a proposal for a ‘Race to IHL’ concept, where everyone plays each other once before Christmas. Finishing places in December will determine whether they enter IHL1 or IHL2 in March after an extended winter break.

Another club gave backing to the idea of using the Interprovincials to further raise the standard of our elite players, which would see a system where Ulster and Leinster provide two teams and Munster one into a five team interpro league.

Those players train once a week together, which also helps fulfil the National regional sessions and then games are played once a month in September, October, November, March and April. There is no question that the top players will get much more contact with and against each other throughout the season.

A final solution is a variation on what is there already, which is to intersperse IHL games throughout the season with domestic fixtures. If we had one IHL game every three weeks, then the need for regular top quality hockey is maintained without the need to disrupt the domestic league programme.

The gaps for the non IHL teams could be filled with a worthwhile Provincial cup competition spanning the best of Premier League and the best of Senior One.

The IHL Working Group has plenty to chew on.