It’s Wales v England on Saturday, but it’s nothing to do with the warm-up for rugby’s World Cup. In Antwerp, the old enemies face each other in their opening game of the men’s EuroHockey championship. Owen Morgan looks at the progress of the national sides in both the men’s and women’s game.
These are exciting and hectic times for Welsh hockey as the game looks to develop on and off the pitch.
Wales women last week completed their EuroHockey campaign in Glasgow, preserving their Championship II status.
Meanwhile, the national men’s team are preparing for their first campaign in the top flight of European hockey for 20 years.
They begin their challenge against England on August 17 in a pool where they will also face Spain and current World Champions Belgium on their home turf at the Belfius EuroHockey Championships in Antwerp.
Hockey Wales chief executive officer Ria Male said: “It’s a really exciting time. For the men to be able to play in Championship One is such a huge event.
“The men are looking really strong. The work of the head coach, assistant coach and support staff is phenomenal. They thoroughly deserve to be playing in Championship One.
“They are doing really well and it’s really exciting for them. I think it was 20 years ago in 1999, the last time they were playing at this level.
“Zak Jones, our head coach, was actually playing in that competition. There are players in this current squad who weren’t even born that last time we were at this level.”
The Welsh team – lowest ranked in the competition – faces a huge challenge against the likes of Spain, Belgium and England, where many of the players are full-time professionals.
Male, a former Welsh international goalkeeper, says: “They’ll have their tactics and approaches on how to tackle these teams. I’m confident they will do as well as they possibly can and approach each game smartly and intelligently.
“They have England in their pool, who are professional, centralised. They all train and play together and don’t necessarily have to worry about working. Some do work and study, but the contact time they get is greater than the contact time we get.”
The Wales women’s team faced a similar challenge in Glasgow this month, where they came up against teams able to spend far more preparation time together.
Competing in EuroHockey Championship II, Wales produced some fine performances including a 7-3 win over the Ukraine and 5-1 trouncing of Turkey, but narrowly missed out on reaching the semi-finals, finishing fifth overall.
Although disappointed not to reach the last four, Male said: “It’s evident that we can compete against some of the best teams. We have got good results against the likes of Spain.
“What we don’t do is spend enough time together to continue to build on that and sustain those results. That’s due to funding, unfortunately, and the girls being in full-time education or employment aren’t able to train to the extent we would like to be able to train.
“These guys are travelling in order for them to play. Some are playing club hockey in England and they’re travelling from London and the likes. They are committing a huge amount of time to play for their country and they are paying for it as well.
“It’s a huge issue with sport at the moment, not just hockey. We’re all struggling to continue moving in the direction we want, but we don’t have the financial backing. We need some commercial investment to join us.
“But we don’t blame and we don’t complain. What we have, we work with. The guys are really helpful and mature in their approach to that, but, ultimately, we want to be better and want to continue moving up the rankings.
“We’ve done so over the past couple of years and we want to continue that trend. We will find ways and means to do that. We will assess the programmes, check and challenge our processes and how we approach things in a holistic way.
“And we are looking at becoming more commercially-minded, engage with partners where we can help them and they can work with us.”
In the meantime, as well as the senior teams, there is plenty of playing talent coming through the development programmes with the men’s and women’s under-21s having been promoted from their respective sections this summer.
Male says: “The 21 to 23 programme is something we have re-introduced recently and it’s made a significant difference and given the opportunity for some of those players to play in that age group, develop leadership qualities, and become role models for the younger players.
“It has been a real success. Our women have been promoted to Championship One – the A division of the youth Euros – and our men are back up to the B division, so that’s really promising.
“There’s some real talent coming through which does give us confidence for the future.”
With the Tokyo Olympics coming up next year, Male hopes there will be Welsh representation in the Great Britain teams.
“There is a really strong relationship with Great Britain. Sarah Jones has obviously featured heavily recently and some of the younger players are in the development programme with Great Britain which is a great pathway from the home nations. We’ve seen some real positives coming out of that.”
And looking a little further ahead, Male is optimistic about Welsh hopes at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“We know we can compete with some of those teams ranked higher than us and we want to go out and beat them. We don’t just want to do well against them.
“I think there will be ambitions to do a lot better in Birmingham than we have done in the past.”
Away from the national sides there is also a lot of time and effort being invested in the grass roots game.
“The performance teams are doing really well,” says Male. “I think we just need to see some growth at the clubs now.
“We want to invest time into how we can encourage more people to keep playing hockey, to get involved and join a club, because that’s where everyone starts their hockey, at club level.
“It’s just a case of how do we get more people playing – women and men, girls and boys. It’s about getting them hooked on the sport.
“We have got a number of initiatives to get people involved. Playing summer hockey, summer sevens, and we run a programme called Hooked on Hockey, where we support primary schools to make hockey sustainable within the school set-up.
“Rather than us coming in and doing an initiative for six weeks and then going, we are supporting schools to deliver it themselves with a view that they’ll get hooked on hockey at primary school level, then from 10, 11, 12, 13 years of age they’ll play club hockey.
“So, that is the medium term plan at the moment. To give kids the opportunity to experience hockey at that age.”