By Graham Thomas
If 2022 is to be the last time Leah Wilkinson and Sarah Jones play hockey together for Wales, then the dynamic duo plan to go out with a bang.
Not only do one of Welsh sport’s most recognisable couples have a wedding to look forward to, but there is also the prospect of more glorious moments together in a red vest at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
Wilkinson and Jones have been together for nine years, during which they have become reliable pillars of the Wales team and gone to an Olympic Games together for Team GB.
They returned from Tokyo last summer with a pair of bronze medals around their necks, but at 35 years of age, Wilkinson knows that international hockey will not be the hub around which the pair revolve for too much longer.
The most capped international in the history of Welsh sport – she reached the figure of 169 appearances for her country before Tokyo and GB duty – will not be around forever.
“I am 35 now and so I know I haven’t got that long left in my sporting career,” says Wilkinson, who returned to her day job as Head of year 10 and a history teacher at Ewell Castle School in Epsom following an 18-month sabbatical ahead of the Olympics.
“There are others focuses in my life that will probably start to come in now and overtake hockey.
It’s a big year for them as they prepare for #Birmingham2022 and plan for their wedding 🏑💒
— Sport Wales (@sportwales) February 24, 2022
“So, for me, it’s important that I finish my career playing for Wales because that is how it all started. The focus this year has been on the Commonwealth Games.
“I grew up in Burton-on-Trent, which is 40 minutes from Birmingham and my family live close by.
“So, it’s almost like a home Commonwealth Games for me and for Wales it’s close, too.
“There was a lot of support for Wales at the Games in Glasgow, but this should be even better. There is something about having home support that makes it more special.”
Wilkinson kept her hand in as a teacher during her time preparing for Tokyo, so it hasn’t been so tough to revert to being a part-time elite sports star, rather than a full-time one.
She went into her school on days off from the GB squad and admits: “If I hadn’t gone in at all for 18 months then I wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea how to turn a computer on, never mind where Henry VIII was born!”
She has not announced this will be her last season with Wales, but marriage and a career may not leave much room for international hockey.
A massive CONGRATULATIONS to Sarah Jones, Leah Wilkinson and the rest of the Great Britain Hockey team for their Bronze at the Olympics. A fantastic achievement. #sarahclarkphotography #headshotphotographer #kentphotographer #throughmylens #teamgb #gbhockey #tokyo2020 pic.twitter.com/pQGmhXByA2
— SarahClarkPhotograph (@SarahCPhoto) August 10, 2021
If Birmingham does prove to be her final major tournament, then she can head off into the sunset safe in the knowledge she has been one of Welsh sport’s most inspirational athletes to a diverse range of admirers.
Kate and Helen Richardson Walsh carried the flag for same-sex couples in hockey when they won Olympic gold with Great Britain in Rio in 2016 and since then Wilkinson and Jones have made a similar mark.
Being international teammates as well as domestic partners is not always easy, but the Surbiton Hockey Club player says they have smoothed out the wrinkles as they have gone along.
“We are very demanding and competitive teammates and we always want the best for the team out on the pitch.
“When we first started our relationship, we definitely had a few arguments, but over the years we have learned to differentiate the relationship on the pitch from the one off it.
“If you don’t do that, then things become too intense. In the first couple of years, there were some silent car journeys home that were a little bit awkward.
“But, like anything, we have learned over time how to be in a relationship, but also be teammates in a high pressure environment. Over time we have got a lot better at that.”
🏑 HOCI BYW | LIVE HOCKEY🏑https://t.co/ikcrmtNGwY
Arwres Hoci Cymru Leah Wilkinson yn agor y sgori gyda dwy funud ar ôl o’r 1/4 cyntaf!
— S4C Chwaraeon 🏴 (@S4Cchwaraeon) May 31, 2019
If Birmingham is indeed Wilko and out, then the Wales captain and defender will leave the field with plenty achieved in the sport, but a conviction that the sport itself still has some way to grow.
“It’s a fantastic sport but in some ways I don’t think hockey is moving quickly enough.
“Until there is more hockey on TV, then the interest in it and the money that can be generated will not be maximized.
“You look at how much of a difference it has made to women’s football now that they have TV deals and financial backing. It’s been huge for that sport.
“It would be nice to get more coverage for hockey, because there is not enough in the mainstream media as far as I’m concerned, given the participation numbers in the sport.
— Hockey Wales (@HockeyWales) February 4, 2022
“We have won three Olympic medals in three Games and so that helped with the profile, but it’s not been sustained coverage.
“Hockey is a brilliant team sport and we should be doing more to promote it.
“It’s not a sport that is played in schools as much as it used to be and we could have a whole different conversation about state school and private schools, but it would be nice for state schools to start playing more hockey again.”