Pembroke and Three Rock Rovers have the edge staring the new year in the EY Hockey Leagues after a feisty return of Ireland’s elite club competition.
After two seasons cut short by Covid-19, the fireworks have been out in full effect with comebacks galore; high-scoring shoot-outs
In the women’s league, Pembroke have been the season’s sensation, building a seven-point lead. The Ballsbridge club have never reached the playoffs before but they look the clear favourites now to land the regular season title and take one of the EY Champions Trophy semi-final spots on offer.
Coach Gavin Groves has been growing his panel year on year and the latest additions have been hugely influential. Irish international Ellen Curran has added an extra level of dynamism to the midfield since her move from UCD while Isy Delamer’s arrival from Trinity complements their defensive options.
At the back, they have been outstanding with goalkeeper Emma Buckley conceding just five times in 10 outings while Leah McGuire, MIllie O’Donnell and Amy-Kate Trevor have ensured no side has an easy ride against them,
Further up the field, the gameplan is all about pace with Aisling Naughton and Sinead Loughran scaring the life out of their opponents with Orla Macken pulling the strings. Gillian Pinder oozes class in a well-rounded team and their run of six successive wins has seen them emerge from the pack.
The crucial phase came in November when they beat both previously unbeaten Pegasus and Catholic Institute back-to-back to forge ahead.
The chasing pack have been hugely competitive with Pegs and Old Alex level on 18 points - with a game in hand on Pembroke - and Institute in fourth on 17.
Pegasus - the Champions Trophy holders - were the pace-setters until that Pembroke setback but look like they will still have plenty of say in the season’s shake-up with Shirley McCay and Alex Speers being huge influences.
Likewise, Old Alex have endure a number of injuries and absences but still find themselves in the top three with Deirdre Duke, Lena Tice and Nikki Evans having limited availability initially but should play a fuller role in the new year.
For Institute, Róisín Upton says she sometimes has to “shake” some of her team mates over how well they are performing. It is just the Limerick side’s second proper season in the EYHL since promotion and they have also reached the quarter-final of the Irish Senior Cup for the first time.
Nonetheless, with impressive wins over Loreto and UCD on their card, the ambition is now to kick-on and nail down a playoff place.
Below them, there looks to be a major scrap for the top six places which will bring a playoff spot in the new format this term. Loreto overcame a mixed start to rise to fifth, level with Railway Union. UCD are just outside the playoff places in seventh after a tough run of form without the injured Olympian Hannah McLoughlin who remains the competition’s top scorer despite missing the last few rounds.
The bottom three have been cut adrift and now look in a straight battle to avoid the two relegation places. Belfast Harlequins are best placed with six points while Muckross’s 3-0 December win over Cork Harlequins has listed them to four points and back in range. Cork need something special in the new year having yet to win their first game.
The men’s competition has already been a rollercoaster with the lead changing hands on an almost weekly basis in the past month with Glenanne, Lisnagarvey and Three Rock all taking turns at the top.
After 10 rounds, the three sides are covered by just two points with Rovers something of a surprise package despite winning the last three EY Champions Trophy crowns.
That is because many of their stars are now playing professionally in Europe with a new breed making their mark. They benefited from a number of players finishing up with UCD with Ali Empey, Mark Samuel Andrew Keane and Matteo Romoli joining from the student club late in the summer.
With Ryan Spencer switching from Monkstown, they have evolved into a fresh-faced line-up, guided by the experience of Jody Hosking, Alastair Haughton and one of this season’s key men, Ross Canning. With 37 goals, they are the season’s top scorers and have the equal best defence.
Lisnagarvey had their own run of six wins in succession which saw them hit top spot before falling 4-3 to Monkstown and drawing 2-2 with Banbridge slowed their progress.
Ben Nelson has been the fulcrum of their attack from play while James Lorimer’s corner expertise has been a vital feature. James Milliken has excelled between the posts.
Glenanne had made the early running with five successive wins to start the season with ace marksman Shane O’Donoghue leading the way. He has 15 goals to his name already. A couple of mis-steps since then, succumbing to a 4-2 loss to Three Rock when they led 2-0 among them and a 3-2 setback against Lisnagarvey, has seen them slip to third but very much in contention.
Banbridge have risen to fourth in the table with an unbeaten run of five games leading into the break as Scott McCandless guides a youthful side finding their way. Chris Curry has shone as have the Rowe twins Louis and Charlie alongside Johnny McKee who has been excellent since returning from pro hockey in Germany.
Monkstown, in fifth, are something of an enigma. Their performances have managed to knock Three Rock, Glenanne and Lisnagarvey off top at different stages of the campaign, picking up seven points out of nine against the top three.
But they have only picked up nine points from their other 21 available to stymie a push for the top.
YMCA are just inside the playoff places thanks to an amazing closing salvo to the pre-Christmas schedule. They came back from 2-0 down to beat Pembroke 3-2 for a second successive win.
It is a very tight section of the table; had Pembroke won that tie, they would have been in the top six playoff spots. However, the loss leaves them in the relegation zone in ninth.
Annadale are seventh following a productive first half of the season. They landed their first win in several years in the top tier when they beat UCD 4-0 and backed that up with a 4-0 victory against Pembroke. Michael and Callum Robson’s return from Germany and Tim Cross’s move from the Dutch Hoofdklasse where he played with Tilburg has been crucial for them.
Corinthian are in eighth place off the back of five defeats in a row which have stunted their strong start which saw them in a share of third after four rounds of action.
Propping up the table are UCD with one point so far. It has been a steep learning curve for them following a late turnover of players during the summer and while they have been competitive, they only have a draw with YMCA on their record.
The EYHL returns mid-January when Catholic Institute hosts Railway Union on January 15 in the women’s competition and Corinthian’s men host Annadale on January 29.
Then it is back to a full schedule on February 5 with a full card of 10 fixtures kickstarting the race to the finish line.