‘Granny’ Symmons sees major Euro opportunity

Nikki Symmons says that, while Ireland have been handed a particularly brutish opening group, should they pick off a shock against Germany or England then an Olympic berth would not be off the cards.

They start their European campaign against Germany tomorrow in Monchengladbach before facing the rising tides of Belgium and England, both very much sides on the up.

“Thinking about the Europeans, Azerbaijan are in a group with Holland, Spain and Italy; it’s an easier group but if we can take a scalp, we’d end up with an easier crossover game which might work out for us.”

She was speaking in the wake of the Champions Challenge as the build-up to this week’s action heightened and was keen to take the positives from that event in which Ireland ended with a winning record but still could only take sixth from the eight contenders.

Against Azerbaijan the second time round, Symmons was honoured for her 150th cap, glad that there was no hoodoo developing for her personal landmarks.

“It was great that we won, it made it even better because I’ve had those occasions when we’ve lost like on my 100th cap against Italy in Canada.

“[It showed] the CPP really has worked but it has been really tough to train and not play. Before that tournament, we’d only played six matches but it was amazing.

“We got a great start but it was frustrating because of the way the tournament was laid out that we’d normally be in a semi-final position. You do get thinking, did teams not bother or did the Americans rest key players and stuff like that? But, overall, to win three, draw one and lose two is a pretty good return.”

And she hopes the lessons learned will hold her side in good stead as she enters her fifth European campaign, making her very much the elder stateswoman in experience terms.

It’s a role she gets ribbed for by her team mates but deals with self-deprecating candour, especially after passing the 150-cap mark (pictured below pre-match) – leaving her 40 ahead of the next highest in a young panel.

“On RTE, I don’t know if you heard, but I actually called myself a granny. They asked what the age profile is like and I was like “well I am the oldest”. Yeah, I am the granny and they call me that but I don’t feel like it. I’ve had my couple of injuries but I feel great at the moment and can go on for another while.

“It is more the fact I’ve been there ten years, a lot of training has gone in. That would be more a factor if I were to quit rather than injury wise.”

Symmons came into a side which featured stars like Rachael Kohler, Claire McMahon, Arlene Boyles and Karen Bateman, all of whom have gone on to play shining roles in club hockey since retiring from the Irish stage.

It is a thought that has crossed the Wesley College alumni’s mind but those experienced mentors have helped Symmons to keep going as London 2012 offers a huge carrot.

“Claire [McMahon] and Arlene [Boyles] would have been the older ones on the team when I was coming in. They looked after me and have helped me a lot in the last year, keeping me going.

“I emailed them and asked them about them retiring and how it was for them. Claire was like ‘you’re not retiring’ and Arlene was the same, saying ‘you’re playing well, still deserve to be there’.

“Claire actually said she felt she retired too early and said don’t do it. She was about my age when she did retire but they really helped me, came down to watch a few matches which was awesome. I really admired them when they were playing internationally. Both are still playing and still going strong.”

Eimear Cregan’s retirement meant she was the last of a generation to still be on the scene, peers like Catherine Murray and Linda O’Neill no longer involved in the setup from the extended 2001 World Cup panel.

Symmons’ international debut came just prior to that event but she did not quite make Riet Kuper’s final cut. Her call-up was precipitated by an early call-up to the Leinster senior panel when still a teenager. The coach that day was David Judge, an IHA Hall of Famer who was recently inducted, too, to the Dublin University HC Hall of Fame.

At that event, he told stories of how he won his 127 caps, earning the latter tranche of those when in his 40s after a 20 year career in green.

Having played in the first Irish team to fly to an international game rather than travelling by boat, his stories are a world away from today’s methods. Symmons, though, says looking back on her career to date, even the past decade has seen umpteen changes.

“I think it was Claire McMahon and she was reading up about my first cap recently enough where we lost against Wales which was a bit weird. I couldn’t really remember it, just that I was probably only on for about two minutes.

“The call-up was a surprise. I was playing underage and had only just played my first senior interpros when David Judge gave me my Leinster debut. I scored on that debut and at the end of the tournament, Riet [Kuper] came up to me and invited me onto the squad. It wasn’t for another year that I got a cap in 2001 but I was called in 2000, I was only 18 at the time.

“But the game has got even quicker now. I went through a phase of not getting many caps for the first few years which doesn’t really happen now. These days, the girls rack them up much quicker. It’s been ten years to get 150 but the last few years we’ve been playing 20 to 30 a year. For 22 years to get less than that is mad.”

Looking forward, her side begin with a huge tussle with Germany on Saturday, one which Gene Muller has pin-pointed as the shock of choice as progression to the semi-finals with England increases the potential for Olympic qualification.

Currently, the finalists are the only side guaranteed a trip to London but should England be one of them, bronze will also confirm a ticket.

Muller’s side enter the competition on a six-game losing streak but can draw some solace from comments made by Markus Wiese this week to Dutch hockey magazine hockey.nl.

The German coach who has won Olympic titles in charge of the country’s men and women said that the European championships are not high on the priority list but is used more as a progression to the major events.

A shock eighth place finish in the Champions Trophy earlier this summer further suggests they are in transition but have not finished outside the top three in nine prior Europeans.

Belgium in game two on Sunday is another difficult prospect, the Champs Challenge II winners having recently defeated both South Africa and the Germans.

They are also guaranteed A division status in 2013 no matter what their finish as they will host the event in Braxgata. Whether this frees their shackles or lowers their intensity remains to be seen but Muller believes they have been preparing solely for the Ireland tie “for two years”. England complete the Irish group games on Tuesday morning.

** For more information on following Ireland, click here. Gene Muller’s pre-tournament thoughts can be seen here

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