Each year the anticipation of the opening Springbok test fills the fans and the public. Shirts are worn in their numbers and provincial enemies become friends as they gear themselves up to cheer on the Green and gold. Squad selections are discussed over the cooler and everyone unanimously agrees that we are a better side when Damien D’Allende is left out. Hockey has never had the same aura as test series often feature 7 or 8 games in 7 or 8 days. The hockey landscape needed change and the FIH, as part of the Hockey Revolution have delivered. Ladies and Gentleman meet the FIH Hockey Pro League.
What is the PRO League?
The Hockey Pro League is designed as an entertainment product and is the centrepiece of the FIH New Events Portfolio, kicking off in January 2019 – replacing the Champions’ Trophy and the World League Semi Finals and World League Final. It will provide – for the first time ever – a regular calendar of must-see events played in packed stadia across the world and throughout the year.
The approach will ensure that international teams will play against opponents once at home and once away each year in this league. Following several months of competition, the top four ranked teams will then qualify for a stand-alone Grand Final event, which will determine the winners of the competition. This will be identical for the men’s and women’s leagues.
Who are the 18 teams?
What about South Africa?
South Africa had initially applied to be part of the Hockey Pro League but were ultimately unsuccessful in their bid. The FIH have chosen no African nation, which is bitterly disappointing for the development of the game. South Africa are due to host the World League Semi-Final now in July and this will be the last of this tournament’s history. There will also be a challenge to hosting the annual Summer Series with leading nations now committed from January to June.
The fact that there is no African trip in the Pro League means that we will not likely be able to piggy back on this to host a few tests as warm up games, instead we would have to travel for first class opposition at a great cost.
South Africa , along with those nations not in the home and away league, the next tier of competition will remain similar to the current Hockey World League Round 1 and 2 events, played over two year cycles. This format will still give teams the chance to go all the way to the World Cup or Olympic Games.
Where there is a positive is that nations like 9th and 10th ranked Ireland and Spain have both missed out on inclusion leaving South Africa with an avenue of creating our own tri-nations tournament maybe?
Whats next for the World Cup and the Olympic Games?
The World Cup does not change its place or purpose on the FIH calendar. It is arguably the most prestigious prize in World hockey, alongside an Olympic gold medal. The World Cup and Olympic Games will still feature the qualification criteria and teams will be able to qualify via their continental competition and should they fail a slightly rebranded FIH World League will offer the second opportunity for qualification.
As a hockey fan I am beyond excited for strength versus strength. I am excited for more televised hockey. I am excited for the rivalries that will develop. I am excited for the development of the sport. I am also excited for the end to meaningless test matches and series, instead of a focused intense tournament. As a South African hockey fan I am significantly concerned. I am concerned that the opportunity to gain major sponsors is overlooked. I am concerned that the ever growing gap in the rankings will extend and I am concerned that the quality of competition will leave us well under cooked in time for the FIH Hockey World Cup and the Olympic Games. Although I believe this is a major step forward for the game of hockey, I cant help feeling like its a major stumbling block for the future of South Africa.
Although it presents a mighty challenge, it should present at least an opportunity for someone to offer a viable solution for South Africa to develop to the point that we are the next name on the list when the Pro League potentially looks at new entrants in 2023!