The much debated Irish Hockey League finally gets underway this weekend and there are still many sceptics as to its viability.
But it is here now and whether it stays or not, well that is up for debate, and there is certain to be plenty of that.
Ulster’s four teams – Banbridge, Lisnagarvey, Cookstown and Annadale – have been in full preparation mode for the last two months and they will be glad to finally step on to the pitch on Saturday and get some competitive hockey.
Their exclusion from Ulster Hockey’s blue riband trophy, the Kirk Cup, has meant that they have not had the competitive games under their belt that they would have liked before the IHL gets underway.
And whether or not that was the right move by Ulster Hockey, will be seen when this season’s Boxing Day final takes place. There are already murmurings that the showpiece final will have to find a new venue, as in all likelihood it will not be at Lisnagarvey.
And Cookstown coach, Stephen Cuddy is also disappointed that they were unable to play in the ‘Kirk’ this season.
“We are looking forward to IHL but we are missing not being involved in Ulster competitions, especially the Kirk Cup which gives you a real focus to try and get to the Boxing Day showpiece,” explained Cuddy.
But whilst looking forward to playing in the new premier league, Cuddy does have concerns, as he explains: “We will have a very tough trip away to Cork Church of Ireland on the opening day but it is exciting to see how we will fair over the season with big game after big game. “We have had a slightly different approach to how we have prepared this preseason but we are confident that physically we are in decent shape.
“I just worry about the lack of hockey and big breaks throughout the season, our guys want to play matches but with only 18 games and the ISC it’s simply not enough for those who are not involved in the Irish squad.”
However, Ulster champions Banbridge are up for the challenge of the new League and would love to win it first time round.
Coach Mark Tumilty said: “I am really looking forward to the challenges the EY IHL will offer.
“Being involved in games against the top teams in the country every week is great for the development of the players and coaches. It also gives our supporters the opportunity to see the best players in the country playing against each other on a regular basis.
“We have been very competitive at national level over the last 3 years, so we want to build on that and challenge again this year.
“It would be great to win the first IHL but I feel that will be very difficult with the quality of the teams involved. We would like to get back into the Euro Hockey League so need to ensure a top three finish to make the play offs weekend and then see what happens.”
And Tumilty was also full of praise for Ireland’s performance at the Euro’s, when they clinched bronze medal for the first time. He went on to say: “It has been a fantastic summer for Irish Hockey with the performance of the Senior Men and hopefully qualification for Rio 2016 will follow.
“I don’t think there could be a better time for the new IHL to commence and hopefully all the good things happening in Irish hockey will help our game grow, on and off the pitch.”
And Lisnagarvey coach, Erroll Lutton thinks the new IHL is a positive move for Irish hockey.
He explained: “Preparations are going well and essentially started towards the end of last season, once we knew the IHL would be in place for the 2015/16 season.
“July and August have been mostly spent making sure the players’ fitness and physical conditioning is at the right level for the coming season.
“Pre-season games included the Super 9s tournament at the end of August, fixtures against Clontarf and Instonians and further games against fellow IHL teams Annadale and Banbridge.
Lisnagarvey have been boosted with the inclusion of two Irish internationals, which Lutton was delighted with.
He said: “We lost Jason Lynch to Pembroke over the summer but we were delighted to gain Paul Gleghorne and Neal Glassey who have taken no time to fit into the squad.
“Both players bring a wealth of skill, leadership and experience of playing at the highest level.
“Hockey in Ireland has very much been at the front of the national sporting news over the summer, with the men winning bronze at the Euros and playing superbly at WL3 to give themselves the best chance of qualifying for Rio.
“The Irish ladies narrowly missed qualification for Rio but still managed to win the Euro Hockey Championships II and the Irish U18 Boys secured fifth place at the European U18 tournament.
“Never has there been the same interest and excitement in hockey around the country and I’m sure all competing teams in the IHL would like to see that continue, with the introduction of the new national league format.”
Annadale co-coach, Steven Dawson knows that playing top flight hockey will be a challenge.
He said: “Annadale are really looking forward to the new IHL season. We have kept our young squad together and also kept the experience of David Smyth, Chris Jackson and Peter Bland to help us in the transition.
“Robbie McGuire is coming in from Australia on the 27 September to give us some fresh ideas and a new face,” he added.