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Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Friday, 8 October 2010 17:02 UK

Player exodus hockey's big talking point

By Jonny Madill
BBC Sport NI

Michael Watt
former Instonians forward Michael Watt is now with Spanish side Santander

As the Irish Hockey League season gets underway, the big talking point is the exodus of Ireland's elite players to professional hockey on the continent.

Does it benefit the national team? What about the impact on the domestic game in Ireland?

Eleven of the 17-man squad which helped Ireland finish runners-up in the recent Five Nations tournament in France are this year gracing the premier leagues of Europe's top hockey nations.

That leaves Ireland's premier clubs without their international stars.

Ulster Premier League champions Cookstown have lost the influential David Ames to English side Beeston, whilst Banbridge will again be without the goalscoring services of Eugene Magee, who continues his spell with the KHC Dragons in Belgium.

Banbridge's other international Geoff McCabe has joined Santander in Spain along with former Instonians forward Michael Watt.

Watt, Ireland players' player of the year last season, argues playing professional hockey at such a high level benefits the country's elite players.

"Playing against some of the top players in the world every week takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to play at the top of your game at all times," said Watt.

"It will improve the national team's performance and give us the best chance of qualifying for a major tournament."

But the exodus of Ireland's most talented players has raised eyebrows, with fears the club game will suffer.

Andrew Kershaw, men's management representative of Irish Hockey League champions Pembroke Wanderers, points out some concerns.

"I think clubs are concerned because everyone, especially those who are playing or involved administratively, want to see structures being created," said Kershaw.

"You invest in these youth structures and you want to see players coming through.

"I'm not sure we will get as many overseas players coming into our leagues as would have been the case over the past eight to 10 years."

Ireland coach Paul Revington
Ireland coach Paul Revington is happy to see players with European clubs

It is Dublin side Pembroke who have taken the biggest collective hit.

All six Irish internationals from their 2010 Irish Hockey League-winning squad have since signed for clubs in Europe, namely brothers Conor and David Harte, Alan Sothern, Andy McConnell, Tim Lewis and international captain Ronan Gormley.

But Irish National coach Paul Revington believes that the moves should be seen as, not a loss, but a compliment to the national game.

He hopes that the domestic game will reap the benefits when the exiled internationals return having experienced club hockey at the highest level.

"I would hope that the cycle would complete itself," said Revington, coming towards the end of his second year as head coach of the national team.

"If a player overseas decided to stop, the reality would be they would come back to Ireland, find work and continue to play at their previous clubs. That's the kind of environment that needs to be encouraged."

The South African admits that preparations for next summer's EuroHockey Nations Championship in Germany, where Olympic qualification is up for grabs, will naturally be affected, but is confident there will be opportunities for the squad to get together as they would have done in recent years.

Indeed Watt says that the full-time hockey experience overseas is perfectly suited to the demands of being an international athlete.

"Playing professionally abroad allows me to commit to international hockey at the required level which would be very difficult if working full time in Northern Ireland."

Revington adds that the change in culture gives clubs the opportunity to develop the next generation of internationals.

"When players leave and potentially self-improve, I would say it would probably be an exciting challenge for all the clubs to produce the next batch of players that could potentially do the same."

This is a view shared by Kershaw, who has faith in Pembroke's youth.

"We will suffer but I'm one who feels you have to evolve. We have good young players coming through and they will hopefully fill the gaps that others have left."

It is much too early to gauge the impact which the exit of so many of Ireland's crop of young and emerging international stars will have on the club game in Ireland.

It is also difficult to tell whether the moves will help or hinder Revington's side's attempts next summer at securing a coveted place at the 2012 Olympics.

One thing we can be sure of is that men's hockey in Ireland is evolving. The reality is that it will be some time before answers are clear.

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see also
Revington new Ireland men's coach
05 Nov 08 |  Other sport...

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