Darren Smith is hopeful that a more integrated approach to the Irish hockey calendar can pay dividends for both the club and international game.
Having been in country for the past five months, he believes that playing top level club hockey at the right times should dove-tail with the Irish senior team’s needs.
Speaking in Newtownabbey last Friday to The Hook, he said that “there is a strong club environment in Ireland which I really like” and that he says needs to be supported with top players available more often for their clubs.
It comes in stark contrast in his predecessor Gene Muller whose centralisation plans saw the Irish women’s senior panel restricted from lining out domestically.
Getting the volume right, though, is the top priority in his proposal to extend the Irish Hockey League.
“The players affiliations to the club is good and, as a national programme, we need to support that and work with the clubs. On the flip side, we need to be proactive and well planned in what the club season looks like. At the moment, it’s not quite as clean as we’d like.”
He is reluctant to go toward a full-blown national league but reckons the IHL is a “bloody good” competition, suggesting a burst of five or six weeks before Christmas and a similar chunk in the spring would be ideal.
“I think you can get stuck playing a national competition from September to May and it’s a grind. I don’t think we want to go down that road. But I think we should broaden it a little bit, that would be ideal.
“What you don’t want is to set up a competition which, for example, a 30-year-old who has a career and a couple of kids and you are expected to drive around Ireland for eight months.
“You have to be careful that you don’t go that extreme where the 30-year-old who is valuable to club and the leadership of younger players ends up stopping playing because they are away enough. You have to be mindful of not just having an IHL of 19-year-olds.
“I also think that the likes of the Ulster, Munster and Leinster leagues have to have their provincial presence and be more tailored into the IHL so it all knits well together to make a great club environment. That club environment should feed into the international programme and vice versa.”
For example had Ireland qualified for the 2014 World Cup, his idea would have been to see a chunk of IHL hockey before Christmas then go away in January for a warm-weather trip.
From there, the second tranche of the IHL would play out from mid-February to the end of March before the players link up for two months of solid preparations with the national squad.
“Then you would have a variety and a good club competition supporting the direction of the national programme and I reckon it’s a winner. The last thing I want to do to players is say ‘you can’t play’.”
Smith’s suggestions come following a baptism of fire since starting the role in late January. He was appointed to the role nine months after Muller vacated the post and, due to his wedding, was only in a position to start the role a couple of weeks before the World League round two.
A fourth place finish meant the side missed out on the World Cup. Since then, he has made a series of changes to the panel with a view to Rio in 2016.
“I was coming in from scratch for World League 2 which was a really tough tournament. We didn’t get ourselves playing as well as we would have liked. From there, it was about setting up the summer programme, getting a new staff. We are lucky now that we have some great people involved but it is about bedding them in and working well together.”
Since then, he has been endeavouring to get a lie of the land in Ireland and an idea of the personalities of the players available to him.
“I really enjoyed the IHL and went to some club trainings. It was good to know some of the players on the fringes. That’s where we have been able to pick another couple of people and see how they go.”
For example, he sat down at length with Kate Dillon – a debutant against Scotland in June but is now in South America – about her personal circumstances and what they can offer the side.
“She had booked to walk the Inca trail and so we sat down and had a really long chat. I didn’t feel comfortable her not going on that trip when she’s been saving two or three years. I couldn’t say whether she would be going to the Europeans but, when you look at Rio, she’ll be 31 and that’s ok.”
Similarly, he is keen to include the likes of Kate McConnell – who is pursuing medical work in Africa in the coming months – and Steph Quinn in future panels but both were unable to turn out this time around.
“I would have liked to have them at the trials and get to know them and see their personalities and see what’s going on.”
Assessing the recent run of results, he admits results have been mixed but he is zoning in on the players he needs for the European championships in six weeks time.
“We were up and down. You expect that when you bring a lot of players in and out. Against Canada, it was a real mixed bag and I thought they were pretty organised whereas we, at times, looked a bit rough and our tactics were a bit unpolished. It was partly the changes with eight players coming in.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing though it is frustrating watching not as good hockey as you’d like. But it does challenge them to play under that uncertainty as well.
“It’s been a bit similar in Newtownabbey. On Monday [against Wales] we played really badly. Tuesday wasn’t too bad – the 4-1 scoreline was a bit flattering – and we did ok with some new girls to win 2-0. Friday was a bit open and rough and lacking in quality but both teams were after four games in five days. You’d like to see more quality but we are making progress.
“We’ll trim the squad in the next couple of weeks. We’ll be careful over the next week [in Cork] and then have quite big volume in training camps on top of our normal training week. From there, we’ll try and refine the panel for the Euros.”