By Rob Cole
Wales women’s hockey team will meet Belarus on Wednesday (6.00pm at Sophia Gardens) to see who will top their pool in the EuroHockey II championships in Cardiff.
Having beaten Austria 6-0 and toppled Poland, eight places ahead of them in the World Rankings, 1-0, they are already guaranteed a place in the semi-finals. Now they got up against the unbeaten Belarusians looking for the easier route into the final.
As well as being a potential ground-breaking fixture for the team, it will also be a landmark occasion for two stalwarts of Welsh hockey. Skipper Abi Welsford and Leah Wilkinson will both win their 139th caps, thus overtaking the Welsh record tally held by the legendary Anne Ellis that has stood since 1980.
Ellis recently stood down after 20 years as President of Hockey Wales and is a former captain of both her country and Great Britain, for whom she played 14 times. She won her first cap in 1963 and went on to play 138 consecutive times for Wales.
Following her retirement from playing in 1980, Ellis went on to coach both GB and Wales, including coaching Wales against England at Wembley in the first match to be played in front of the Queen. She is a member of the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame ‘Roll of Honour’, has been awarded the Sports Council for Wales Medal of Honour and was voted British Coach of the Year.
She has been a Member of the FIH Executive Board and Chair of the Coaching and Development Committee, as well as Chair of the EHF Coaching Committee.
The Newport-born Welsford, who plays as a forward for Swansea, made here Wales debut in 2003 and played at the at 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games.
“I can actually remember my first cap. It was in 2003 playing in Cardiff in the Celtic Cup, and I just remember sitting on the bench in the first half being very inexperienced and then just waiting for my opportunity to get on,” said Welsford.
“Luckily that came in the second half and I even managed to score on my debut – so that was a bit of highlight there, although we ended up losing 2-1 to Ireland. The novelty never wears off and as you get further towards the end of your career you value it even more.”
Welsford’s side are now unbeaten in their last 15 games ahead of the clash with Belarus. If they can keep on winning they will put them in an unassailable position for a spot in the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
“Going into the tournament, the plan was to always stick to our processes and keep going because something will happen eventually, and that was Phoebe (Richards) scoring her goal,” said Welsford.
“If we had written it beforehand, that might be what we did – qualify for the semi-finals with a game to spare – you can’t really ask for much more than that. But we know we’ve got an awful lot to work on if we want to do well in the semi-finals.”
Wilkinson is also looking forward to a potential third Commonwealth Games having joined Welsford in Delhi and Glasgow. She made her 100thappearance against France in 2014 having made her debut in the Celtic Cup 10 years earlier.