These are good times for hockey in Belfield. It is difficult to recall a time in recent years where both the men’s and ladies’ teams have entered the season with such a talented playing pool. The strong national team representation among the UCD ladies in recent years continues this year, with the men’s team also steadily augmenting their international complement in recent weeks.

The men’s team have been performing strongly to date following their promotion to the Ireland’s premier hockey league two seasons ago. Silverware in the Irish Senior Cup final last weekend would have been the perfect way to celebrate what has been a season of major progress. In the end they succumbed to two late Lisnagarvey goals, losing out 3-2.

The loss meant that UCD were denied a unique place in hockey history as the only club to hold both the men’s and ladies’ crown simultaneously. Despite the initial disappointment of such a close defeat, the mood in the UCD camp is positive ahead of the new season. Midfielder Conor Empey, called-up to the Irish Senior squad last week is certainly optimistic for the season ahead.

“We’re really looking forward to the season ahead; the league has definitely gotten tougher with quite a few players returning after stints playing professionally abroad,” Empey said. “We’re looking forward to building on the good work we had last season reaching the Irish Senior Cup final. We’ve got some good young talent coming in who have played at Irish underage level so our squad is looking strong.”

With the ladies’ team boasting an array of Irish internationals in recent years, the men’s side know that good performances have the potential to rewarded with a green jersey. “We have had two call-ups into the Irish Senior Men’s panel after our strong showing last season so we’re hoping to have a few more of our lads get involved in that if we can build on our good work last year and establish ourselves as a top 4 team,” Empey said.

The ladies’ team clinched their third Irish Senior Cup in four seasons by virtue of a 3-1 victory over Pegasus last week. Despite conceding two early goals, Pegasus found new energy thereafter and pushed UCD all the way. UCD’s Suzie Kelly was delighted to emerge victorious following a hard-fought contest.

“Having played the semi-final of the competition 11 months ago, it was a game we were all very eager and excited to play. The Irish Senior Cup is a very historical cup so to win it was really special,” Kelly said. “We scored our first goal early on which was crucial, especially against a team that are as experienced and well organised as Pegasus. The win has definitely given us a confidence boost going into the season ahead.”

An opening day league defeat to Catholic Institute on Saturday brought them back to earth, but the ladies will expect to push very hard for a top 4 finish again this year.

Another team with historically strong UCD representation is the Rathfarnham side Three Rock Rovers. The UCD crop, slightly diminished from previous years, includes Ben Johnson and brothers Ben and James Walker.

Three Rock have enjoyed a period of unparalleled success in recent years and yet again they will front the Irish challenge at the Euro Hockey League- European hockey’s biggest stage. This representation is not without controversy however, with Belfast side Lisnagarvey feeling aggrieved at Hockey Ireland’s decision to deny them a coveted EHL place.

Given that last year’s season was declared null and void, Garvey had expected to be granted the EHL place due to their status as runaway leaders in March. As such, they enter this season with a point to prove and will lead the northern challenge amid the backdrop of a strong summer of recruitment for teams south of the border.

Three Rock Rovers player and UCD MSc Aviation Finance student James Walker is quick to acknowledge this recruitment and is expecting an even tougher league this year. “I expect the league will be even more competitive this year with internationals coming back after spending seasons on the continent,” Walker said.

He is hopeful, however, that his side can yet again be among the contenders come the end of the season. “As always the aim is to get off to a good start and have a run of form so that come the end of the season you’re finishing in the top 4 for the playoffs. Another hope is for a good cup run in the Irish Senior and Leinster provincial cups,” Walker said.

Neil Stokes – Sports Writer