By Graham Thomas
Tania Hoffman believes the Celtic Dragons can surf the netball wave to ride higher in the Vitality Superleague which starts this weekend.
The New Zealander has set a top eight target for her squad as she prepares for her first campaign in charge of the struggling franchise.
Hoffman has a big job on her hands in reviving the Dragons who have been left behind by some clubs in an increasingly competitive and commercially-driven league.
For the past two seasons the Dragons have propped up the 10-team division and they have won just four games in that time.
But with a new coach who brings considerable experience from her homeland as well as in charge of Surrey Storm, there is an air of optimism within the club. Not only has the focus changed from being a squad primarily geared towards preparing players for the Welsh national team, but there are practical improvements towards that shift in the form of two imports – Trinidad and Tobago star Kalifa McCollin, who returns for her second spell, and Jamaican Stacian Facey.
Added to that, the role of Dragons coach is now a full-time one for Hoffman, whereas previous occupants have had to combine Superleague duties with coaching Wales. Julie Hoornweg now coaches Wales as her sole responsibility, leaving Hoffman to call the shots solely for the Dragons.
“There are some very positive things here now that we are trying to do at the Dragons,” says Hoffman, who faces a tough baptism on Saturday when the Dragons face Team Bath as part of the Super Ten weekend in Birmingham.
“I know about the history of the Dragons, so I’m hoping we can change a bit of that history.
“We are lucky this season in having some import players. We also have players who have crossed back over the bridge.
“Last season, the Dragons were very much a Welsh team that used Superleague as a vehicle for the Commonwealth Games. We don’t have those restrictions this season. It’s quite new to have two imports in the squad.
“Also, Welsh netball have two different coaches this season – previously it has been one coach for two teams.
“Both Julie and I bring similar but also different things to this set-up. The Welsh players in the Dragons are now working with different nationalities which should being a different flavour to the team.”
On a UK basis, netball is enjoying a surge in both popularity at grass roots level and attention on the elite end of the game. With England winning gold at the Commonwealth Games and footage of the dramatic final few moments against Australia going around the world, Superleague is well-placed to make the most of that surge in interest.
Hoffman understands how important it is for Welsh netball not to get left behind.
“Standards are rising sharply in the Superleague. Even though England won the Commonwealth games gold, it was a big thing for UK netball in general and we want to ride on the coattails of that popularity and embrace it.
“I have been here for three months now and feel very settled. I am looking forward to our first game to see where we are actually at. We had three pre-season games and we lost all three, but I have rotated players every quarter, as opposed to our last two games where Stars and Pulse didn’t change many players at all.
“This is a similar situation in some ways to when I arrived at Storm. It’s mainly as squad of players already selected but I’ve managed to have some input on the imports I wanted.
“In terms of structure, Storm is a very much a University-based franchise so that makes it quite different. But Storm had a great fan base, who were very loyal. I hope that we are also able to grow the fan base with the Dragons so what we fill out Sport Wales for our home games.”
As for goals for her new team, Hoffman is determined to seek improvement, but will not expect miracles overnight.
“Our targets for this season have to be realistic. Dragons have been at the bottom for the last few seasons. The KPIs are to be in the top eight and I think we can push that. Getting off the bottom is something that we really want to do and getting into the top six is something we should aim for.
“We have got stronger, but then so have the other franchises as well. There are three very strong franchises in the competition, but on their day everyone else can beat one another.”