Smith facing hectic lead-in to new Irish job

** Article updated, Friday November 30

Life looks set to be get pretty hectic for new Irish senior women’s coach Darren Smith before he formally takes on the new post on January 25, 2013.

Relocating 12 time zones away and starting a new role is complicated enough. Throw in his final commitments with the Black Sticks’ men at the Champions Trophy, which gets underway on Saturday in Melbourne, and it’s a busy time.

But Smith told The Hook this week there’s plenty more for him to take care of in the coming weeks.

“You got to also add in I’m getting married on January 19. I’m trying my best to do everything in my life in two months. Get married, change job, move countries!”

Nonetheless, he had a plan in place to make sure Ireland have the best possible chance of progressing from World League round two in Valencia in last February, his first major test in the new role.

“We’re working pretty hard on getting the platform right and get everything in place so the girls are happy and ready to do some training over the winter months while I finish my commitments with New Zealand hockey.

“That build-up will be slanted toward when I get into the country around January 25. Almost immediately, we’ll look to head away from Ireland for eight or nine days where we can get to know each other and train to build a foundation.”

The timing of his appointment and his commitments does put time at a premium in the lead-up to Valencia, set to tip off on February 25.

Ireland are currently second seeds for that tournament, grouped with the hosts, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Italy and one more side to be confirmed in the coming weeks. Top two is the target there to progress.

Because of that schedule, the strength and conditioning work done by the players in Ireland will play a key role in helping getting the side in good shape ahead of Smith’s arrival in country and that subsequent training camp.

“More importantly, the trip is for the girls to know me and me them. The last thing I want to do is – Gene Muller and Denis did a really good job over a number of years – and I’m reluctant in the short term to break down something that’s operating quite well.

“The idea is when I get off the plane, the girls are lean and fit and physically raring to go. In those five weeks, we can put some good hockey into them and have them firing for World League 2.”

Smith comes to Irish hockey off the back of six years with the kiwis’ men as assistant coach, a role he has been working full-time with since the start of 2011 as part of the Olympic build-up.

For the initial phase of that six-year period, he combined the role with the provinces, starting with North Harbour in Auckland as the high performance coach. He moved on to Midlands in 2007, coaching their side to their first ever national championship a year later.

It came following a glittering 11-year international playing career from 1995 to 2006, taking part in over 200 capped matches, playing in two World Cups.

Beyond these home-grown posts, he has experience outside those shores, coaching the Belgian U-16 girls back in 2000 as well as club side Herakles while he played in the country.

More recently, he had a spell with University of Kuala Lumpur in the Malaysian hockey league in 2010, the job that former Irish men’s assistant Arul Anthoni occupies.

But the Irish job is one that he was keen on having seen recent progress, initially keeping an eye on the men due to possibility of meeting them at a major qualifier.

“The men were tracking well so I was making sure to keep an eye on their players. As a result, I started to follow the women, too.

“After the Olympics, when I saw the position advertised, I thought I’d apply for either position and it was fantastic to get the women’s job.

“What attracts me to Ireland is a good player base, they’re tracking well and both teams are heading in the right direction in terms of world rankings and with what they want to do on the hockey pitch.

“Also, something which I don’t think can be under-estimated is the basic core values of Irish people. They are quite similar to kiwis – we have a good sense of humour, are honest, committed, and hard-working – and that shines out in both countries personalities.”

He comes to Ireland from a men’s programme in New Zealand that – like the Irish men – sees the majority of top players play in Holland, Belgium and Germany.

On the flip side, the Black Sticks’ women are for the most part based on home soil, a situation similar to the past few years here.

While this does suit, Smith does add that he is not adverse to players pursuing foreign opportunities.

“I get to see them more than what I would if they were based in Europe. But I’m not opposed to players if they’d like to have the experience of playing in Holland or Germany.

“It’s what is best for them as a person and an athlete. Having them based in Ireland though is perfect. I get to know them, train them and work with them and build a culture and environment where they can thrive.”

What kind of culture that is – whether it be a centralised one or not – remains to be determined once Smith has gained more information from the previous incumbents and seen how that tallies with his own philosophy.

“One of the topics to discuss is certainly around what sort of training environment we should set up. I don’t yet have a clear understanding of the pros and cons of the centralised programme that Gene [Muller] ran.

“I would think there would be some benefits but probably some pitfalls as well. That’s my experience with centralised programmes in New Zealand.

“I’ll hit the ground running when I get to Ireland so I can make a good call on what kind of programme would be good for the girls.

“I want to mix that with a good relationship with the top clubs. I know the girls work closely with their clubs and it’s important we [the Irish setup] can do that as well; support and supply information and also listen to what their desires are as well. It will take a little time to judge the situation and what’s best.”

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