Former Irish senior women’s assistant coach Denis Pritchard is looking forward to a new challenge this season after he was appointed as women’s head coach at Victory Hockey Club, based in Edegem in Belgium.
He started the role two weeks ago having responded to an internet ad, attracted to the role by the role by the importance of development to the club.
Having previously built successful programmes with Ashton school and then at Bandon GS as well as the Munster U-18s, bringing on young players has been at the core of his coaching for a large tranche of his career.
Since then, he was worked with Irish U-21 men’s side before taking on the Irish women’s assistant coach role for a number of years. Indeed, his most recent act was to coach the Irish women, on an interim basis, to bronze at the Champions Challenge I in the autumn of 2012.
Looking to the Victory job, he has initially been charged with helping the club professionalise in certain areas and bounce back into the “Honours” division following relegation to the second tier last year.
And he told The Hook it has been a busy fortnight since starting the job.
“It’s a culture shock compared to most Irish clubs. It has 1,000 members with multiple teams at all age groups from age six to veterans to disabled hockey. There’s a lot of people to get to know in a short period of time but I’m beginning to settle into it.”
Following relegation, the club lost some of its more promising players but Pritchard says the standard is pretty good in the group that he has worked with to date.
“The Dames 1 [women’s first team] have players from an ex-Belgian international down to ‘Be Gold’ players which are Belgian underage potential internationals. The standard seems to be high and the players are tactically astute, perhaps moreso than Irish players at a similar age. Technically, it’s reasonably similar.
“I’m potentially on a three year contract. If you want to make a difference, you have to approach it like that because the Honours division in Belgium is a good step higher than the national league we are in at the moment.
“Ideally, we get promoted this year, consolidate in the Honours league and then push for higher in the third year. The overall plan also would be to attract some of the players back to the club which will up the standard.”
It is a first foray into coaching outside Ireland and while he says that staying with the national setup was where he wanted to be, this kind of opportunity was too good to turn down.
“I don’t think its any secret I applied for the Irish senior job and didn’t get it which is fair enough. This came up and it had always been a sort of second plan to move away.
“My knowledge of world hockey may not be that profound but Belgium is probably the only country that can offer a package for a second division club like they offered me. I wouldn’t say money is no object but talking to some players, they suggest there is more money here than in the Netherlands. They are really making the effort.”
Indeed, he adds that Belgium have the “ideal setup” to promote the growth of the sport. Currently, the country has two high performance centres, one in Antwerp and one in Brussels, an hour apart with limited rival adult team sports for men and women.
“With a population of 11.5m in a small area, it’s ideally what we would setup in Ireland if we could. The men have made the leap into the big time and the women are obviously pushing so it’s an exciting place to be at the moment.”
Asked whether Ireland is currently in a position to replicate such a situation, Pritchard said that the leap might have been possible had one or both of the Irish teams reached the Olympics.
In an interview The Hook conducted for Push Magazine, the Belgian High Performance Director Bert Wentink explained how each step of success brought much greater sponsorship and finance.
But to start the snowball, big financial risks were taken to get all the structures in place to aid high performance at club and international level.
Pritchard, though, says that there is currently a disconnect between the clubs and the national sides that, while becoming more joined up, needs to be made before Ireland can try and emulate the Belgian model.
“If either Irish team qualified for the Olympics the last time around, we would no doubt be in a better financial position. When both Belgian teams made it, it was obviously a huge attraction for sponsors.
“The problem with Ireland is we really have three centres in Ireland – Cork, Dublin and Belfast – with some players in Limerick and Connacht. Travel distances are huge and we don’t have a national league.
“Currently, we’re falling between two stools and have only had a high performance structure for five or six years. It’s only now ex-international players are coming back into coaching and bringing a high performance culture with them like Graham Shaw, Nikki Symmons and David Hobbs.
“They are coming from that environment. We’re very new to that. It means if we go a certain way at international level, it will pull them away from the clubs and if we go a certain way with the clubs, it will affect the international side. For three or four years, there will be that conflict.
“We probably need to make a decision and go one way and the other will catch up. That’s up to the IHA… but I’m not going to make that call!”