Rivals resolute and ready to lift Muckross stranglehold

 

WHILE most of us are left with broken New Year's resolutions by the second day of January, the only thing Old Alexandra, Hermes and Loreto have resolved to break in the coming months is the Muckross stranglehold on both the Leinster League and Senior Cup trophies.

The champions' chief rivals are due to emerge from hockey's Christmas hibernation this weekend with a far greater level of optimism than they possessed at the end of the 1995 festive season - by then Muckross had all but wrapped up yet another league title and were well on their way to retaining the Leinster Senior Cup.

Twelve months on, they remain on course to repeat that double success, but the gap between themselves and the rest would appear to have narrowed and there's a spring in the step of their challengers. Of the trio, Old Alexandra have the first opportunity of the New Year to test the double holders' resolve when they meet at Whitechurch tomorrow morning in the quarter finals of the Senior Cup.

Three draws in nine league matches (including a 2-2 draw with Old Alexandra in October, having been two goals down with 20 minutes to go) meant that by the end of October, Muckross had dropped three points, two more than they had in all of the previous season. Consequently, there was a growth in the I don't think they're quite as strong as they were theory, which could be heard whispered (very quietly) at some grounds around Dublin.

Rumours of their demise, however, are not only exaggerated but sound downright foolish when you study the current league table - six wins, three draws and 32 goals from nine games give them a one point lead over Old Alexandra and Hermes, and a two point lead over Loreto.

Still, ever the perfectionist, coach Ian Steepe suggested last month that he might "start tinkering with the team's diamond formation after Christmas in an attempt to fine tune the Muckross machine. If it is to lead to an improvement on their almost four goals a game average, the Old Alexandra defence will hope that the `tinkering' is postponed until after tomorrow's match.

There's a bit of tinkering to be done still on a youthful Railway Union side that has so far struggled to find any consistency this season. The team currently lie fourth from bottom of the league and a first round Irish Senior Cup defeat by Pegasus means they must beat Pembroke Wanderers at Park, Avenue tomorrow, in the last eight of the Leinster Senior Cup, if they are to retain any hope of winning some silverware this year.

Despite their current predicament Railway Union player manager Minnie Douglas is confident that the second half of the season will be a vast improvement on the first, beginning, she hopes, with a victory tomorrow.

"We're certainly capable of beating Pembroke - I think we are a better side but we know it won't be easy. We drew 1-1 with them in the League in September but missed a penalty stroke that would have won us the game."

"It has been disappointing for us so far this season but we are definitely a better team than our results suggest. We have a young side - four or five are under 21 players and most of the team is under 24 - and they just haven't clicked yet, but we're confident we can improve and do well from now to the end of the season," says Douglas.

Douglas believes the chief difference between the top four teams in Leinster and the rest is the quality of strikers they possess, and one of the players she points to is Hermes' Jenny Burke. The Irish international is due to return from a holiday in America today and such is her importance to the Hermes' team that they will be nervously checking the fog forecasts for Dublin Airport ahead of their cup clash with Trinity at Belfield tomorrow.

The match begins what Hermes manager Joan Morgan describes as "an incredible month" for the team who face Leinster and Irish Senior Cup quarter finals and crucial league matches against Muckross and Old Alexandra over the next two weekends.

Loreto will expect to put successive defeats before the Christmas break - to Hermes and Muckross - behind them when they take on Railway Union's second team at Belfield, a team they beat at the same stage of the competition last season.

Meanwhile, the `will she or won't she be available' (for the World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe next August) saga surrounding former Irish international goalkeeper Sandra O'Gorman appears to have been answered in the negative with her withdrawal from the Irish panel due to work commitments.

UCC's Sharon Hutchison, who was outstanding for Munster in the Senior Interprovincials in November, replaces O'Gorman.