Sunday 18 February 2018

Women relocate to chase Olympic goal


The Ireland women's squad participating in this week's ESB Electric Ireland's FIH Champions Challenge has a strange look about it. Of the 24 players that have assembled for the week-long event in Dublin, only one, Michelle Harvey, plays with a club from Ulster. A curious fact given the traditional strength of the northern province within Irish hockey.

The reason for the anomaly can be found in what the Irish Hockey Association calls its Central Preparation Programme -- the CPP. It may sound a bit like a Soviet-era initiative and some of the regimes in place, like centralised living, regular blood tests and body monitoring, have more in common with an Orwellian plot than women's hockey's amateur ethos.

Under the programme running for the last ten months, players are encouraged to live in Dublin and train together as a unit for 20 hours a week with South African coach Gene Muller. Three Ulster players as well as three from Munster have moved to Dublin clubs in the past year, including Irish captain Alex Speers, who transferred from Pegasus in Belfast to play with Railway Union. Needless to say, the movement of players has strengthened the top Leinster clubs, but what is perceived as a 'forced' movement of players to Dublin has had its critics in the North and in Munster who see their local clubs and leagues weakened. Muller, though, is at pains to stress that the programme was initiated as much by the players as the management.

"There was a discussion with the players early last year on what was needed for us to qualify for the Olympic Games and there was an understanding that if you do what you always did, you will get what you always got," he said.

Muller insists that while six or seven players did consciously relocate to Dublin these were players who had either just finished playing with their universities or were playing abroad in Belgium. It was not a question of taking players from clubs or forcing them to move.

"There was always the understanding that if you move to Dublin your chances of improvement would be better so it wasn't forced, it was encouraged. A consequence of being isolated from the group, though, would be that you would fall behind."

While the programme is aimed at Olympic qualification, for which there will be opportunities through the European Championships in August and early next year, this week's tournament will provide a useful yardstick. Seven of the sides are ranked above Ireland and the Irish, currently at 15, will face Spain, India and Azerbaijan ranked 10th, 11th and 14th.

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