Sunday 18 August 2019

Sinead Kissane: 'Time is against Irish hockey team rediscovering World Cup momentum'


Former Ireland hockey international Nikki Symmons. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
Former Ireland hockey international Nikki Symmons. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile

Talking point: Sinead Kissane

The man who would go on to be named head coach of the Ireland women's hockey team this week said something back in January that might easily apply to his new job with Ireland.

Earlier this year assistant coach Sean Dancer was handed the position of interim boss of the New Zealand women's hockey team after Mark Hager left as head coach.

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"It certainly has been a tough period for us," Dancer told the New Zealand Herald in January. "Anytime a team loses a world-class coach is going to be a difficult period. I'm just trying to keep things really simple and, so far, the girls have responded well to that".

Hockey Ireland's announcement on Thursday that Dancer is taking over from Graham Shaw as head coach of the national women's team brought an end, in some way, to a disruptive period for a group of players that won stunning silver medals at last summer's World Cup.

In the Hockey Ireland statement announcing, Dancer thanked the people he worked with. "Apart from developing some great NZ friendships, I have also had the opportunity to coach with, and learn from, some of the world's best coaches Mark Hager and Shane McLeod," he said. "I'm excited to continue, and add to, the (Ireland) team's world class performances over the last 12 months".

There's been a curious merry-go-round of head coaches in world hockey over the past few months. Dancer, whose last game as interim head coach of New Zealand was their 5-1 defeat to Australia in Auckland on Wednesday, had been assistant coach to Hager. During last summer's World Cup, Hager sent an email that was highly critical of some players to the whole team - instead of just the coaching staff - which resulted in a controversial fall-out.

Hager's coaching methods and team environment were the subject of a review but Hockey NZ didn't publish the full findings beyond revealing general conclusions that it was a "negative environment"

Hager had departed by this stage, to take up the position of Great Britain head coach in January. That left a job opening for head coach of New Zealand which Shaw applied for and was successful in. That left a job opening for head coach of Ireland which Dancer applied for and was successful in.

Former Ireland international Nikki Symmons (pictured) has backed Dancer's appointment: "Considering it can be extremely difficult to find a coach that this team deserve especially with just one year to go to Tokyo 2020, I feel that Sean is a great choice. He has not held a full-time position but in ways this is good as he will be hungry to show his skills considering he has previously held assistant coach positions internationally."

But can he realistically make an impact before Ireland's Olympic qualifying effort starts in June?

Shaw and Joe Schmidt were two of the most successful coaches working in Irish sport in 2018 but the difference in how Hockey Ireland and the IRFU dealt with their head coaches' departures to ensure a smooth transition was striking to say the least.

When the IRFU announced that Schmidt will leave after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the word "continuity" was used three times by their Performance Director David Nucifora, with Andy Farrell announced as his successor in the same statement.

The hole left by having no head coach in situ for the women's hockey team in an Olympic qualifying year has slowed down the brilliant momentum they engineered from that World Cup. It's hard to escape the impression that we still don't have the full picture on why this happened. Last month Shaw said he "was moving to a job I have always wanted since going into coaching. I have said it for years".

A by-product of success is scrutiny. So when there were no public acknowledgements from the players about Shaw's departure on social media, a platform many of the players use, it left a curious vacuum and helped fuel speculation that maybe players were adhering to some kind of confidentiality agreement.

Interview requests have been declined.

This is understandable if players just want to focus on training after what must have been an overwhelming few months since their London success.

But time is not on their side. It is only 42 days until the FIH Series Finals start in Banbridge, which is the first step to Olympic qualification for Tokyo next year.

In Thursday's press release to announce Dancer's appointment there was no mention of when he will actually start and it's not known yet if a start date has even been agreed. Add that to the team's results so far this year - Ireland have played nine games: winning one, drawing four and losing four.

"Naturally you go through a thing of losing a few games and losing momentum," Symmons said. "You don't want to be winning all those games because you want to peak at the right time. They might have lost a bit of momentum but I think they'll get it back again, for sure".

Add all that to the different pressure that will be on Ireland going into this FIH Series Finals. World Cup finalists make for a tasty scalp.

"That's the thing, they're going to be the favourites really. It's a different type of feeling and scenario but I think that the girls are experienced enough to take that one and really go with that. They can't hide, they've got to go out and own it," Symmons added.

The big thing for Symmons, because she knows what it's like, is that people come out and support the World Cup finalists in Banbridge. "We just lack that bit of support of people coming and actually going to the game. You need that home support, it gives you such a boast. Especially as you said, they're going through a bit of a tough time. They need support of the people around them and if they see people there, they will do it for them."

This year is a whole new ball game for the Ireland team because with success comes scrutiny. If they're able to re-engage with that magical momentum from last summer's World Cup it will go a long way to nailing down their Olympic dream.

Irish Independent

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