By Rob Cole
Luke Hawker is demanding a final flourish from his Welsh team when they end the Hockey Open Series tournament against host nation Croatia in Zagreb on Saturday.
Co-captain Hawker’s side bounced back from their 3-0 defeat to Austria with a crushing 7-1 victory over an experimental Swiss side to put themselves within one win of joining the Austrians in clinching a top-two finish and an invite to the Open Series Round 2 next summer.
“We want to end on a high and clinch a top-two finish. That is very important to us and would round off a pretty successful 18 months for us,” said Hawker.
“We are demonstrating we are capable of competing against teams ranked higher than us in the world and we need to keep putting away those teams ranked below us. Everything is building towards next year’s EuroHockey Cup tournament and we are progressing well.
“There is a lot more to come from this group of Welsh players and the major goal is to hold onto our place in the top tier of European competition next year. That would be an incredible achievement for us and would certainly push Welsh hockey forward.”
Gareth Furlong and Ben Francis both scored hat-tricks in Wales’ latest big win in Croatia. They opened with a 6-1 win over Slovakia and picked up an even bigger triumph over Switzerland as Owain Dolan-Gray joined the two hat-trick heroes on the scoresheet.
The players will get a month off when they return at the weekend, although rising young star Rhys Bradshaw will stay on international duty when he leads the Wales Under 18 side into the EuroHockey II Youth Championships in Cardiff next month.
Bradshaw picked up his first senior international goal this week as he built on his test debut in Poland earlier in the month. Hawker believes he has a big future in the game.
“Rhys is a very talented young player – he has got it. All the senior players look at him and just wonder where all his ability has come from,” said Hawker.
“It was great to see him get his first senior goal this week and he will be the figurehead in the Under 18 squad. I hope he can take back some of what he has learned with us in Poland and Croatia this month and set the standards for the Welsh youngsters.
“We trained alongside the Under 18s before we came to the Open Series and invited some of their players to work with us. We have a very experienced and settled squad off the back of last year’s EuroHockey championships and the Commonwealth Games.
“But it is important for our future that we work to integrate the Under 18s into our squad. With Rhys it was pretty easy because he is such an exciting talent.”
While Bradshaw will become the talisman for the Welsh teenagers, Hawker admits that Dan Kyriakides has become the inspiration for the senior squad following his elevation into the Great Britain squad.
The prospect of having a player rubbing shoulders with the best players on the planet in the new World League, as well as potentially making the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, is helping to drive up standards in the Welsh squad.
“Dan is not just someone for our younger players to look up to, but for all of us to admire. It shows that you can reach the top while playing for Wales,” said Hawker.
“A few years ago the GB selectors looked at Welsh and Scottish hockey and thought we were a bit of a joke, but it is a different story now. GB are starting to take us seriously.
“Dan is in the GB team, we have a number of players in the elite development squad and Jacob Draper is off to play three tests against Belgium with GB Under 21 in July. We are moving in the right direction.
“When I first started playing for Wales it was costing me up to £1,500 a year to represent my country. Those costs have been dramatically reduced, we have great support staff and there is a proper high performance programme in place for us to progress.
“We are playing more games against better opposition and that is allowing us to develop. The biggest difference you notice when you play against the top 10 teams in the world, is the speed of the game, their skill on the ball, passing ability and tactical nous.
“Many of the top nations in the world are either full time or semi-pro and have the time and resources to work on their game. The more exposure we get to players and teams at that level the better for us.
“That’s why all our focus is on being at our best when they EuroHockey Cup comes around next year when we have to play the likes of England, Germany, Holland and Spain. Over the past 12 months I think we’ve demonstrated we are capable of competing against teams of that stature.”
Putting away the Croatians this weekend will be a great way to finish a year that has seen Hawker and his team mates gain promotion to the top tier of European hockey for the first time in almost two decades, drew with Pakistan and beat South Africa at the Commonwealth Games to finish ninth and pushed both India (4-3) and England (3-2) to the brink at the Gold Coast.
But as Hawker points out, the best is yet to come!