Darren Smith says that the future is very positive for the Irish women’s team despite a devastating shoot-out defeat last Thursday to China, one that denied the side a coveted Olympic place.
The World League Round 3 tournament was Smith’s last act as coach of the team, stepping down to return to his native New Zealand to be with his family with Graham Shaw taking on the reins.
The coach leaves the role with Ireland in probably one of its healthiest states in over a decade, able to compete and beat top ten sides, playing with an attacking verve and intent.
Such an outlook, though, is a far cry from 2013 when Smith’s side had an annus horribilis. It included losses to Belarus and Italy and elimination from the World Cup qualifying process at the Round 2 phase. Ireland were subsequently relegated to the second tier of the European Championships.
From there, the genesis of a new outlook was built with fortunes enjoying an about turn in 2014, capped by a silver medal in the Champions Challenge in Glasgow with back to back wins over Korea and South Africa indicative of the change.
“2013 was my hardest year of coaching in a new country; perhaps the way I coached wasn’t the same as the last coach and it takes time to adjust and to get the right players.
“2014, some of the hard work came into place; 2015 was really enjoyable with some girls who are top notch. Number one on our selection policy was ‘green army spirit’ – we wanted adaptable, team orientated, people who were low maintainence and would give everything to be an Irish hockey player.
Looking back, he says there were a series of specific measures which were required to alter the side’s image and way of conducting themselves to achieve his targets.
“One, I have a lot of perseverance,” he told The Hook. “Two, I think hockey is a very athletic game and we have to reward athletic players.
“Thirdly, players who have ability to drive themselves is incredibly important, ones who can lead themselves. We went on multiple tours in 2014 without a manager, gave them managerial tasks and make them lead themselves.
“We would go on tour and give them less information than they needed so they had to rise. We would see the ones that would and see the ones that wouldn’t.
We could see the players who constantly needed driving and then the ones who would run with it.
“We had a lot of very clear philosophies that we believed in. I started those in 2013 – it was a tough gig but by 2015 at this tournament, we topped the pool and heart-breakingly close to Rio. A lot of the team reflect the visions we have.”
And he believes that vision is part of a wider potential in Ireland, saying that there are many “good core materials for success” on the island.
“There are so many good core materials for success. I look at hockey being played in the schools, riding bikes with sticks on their backs, clubs that have strength and a real passion for the sport.”He does say, though, that the high performance programme needs to be aligned closely with the junior age-group programmes, something is not quite in place.
“[Hockey Ireland] need to make sure the age-group programmes are running well and the Irish Hockey League goes well.
“All the provinces need to be linked in with Irish hockey to build strength across the programmes. We need to make sure the national programmes are well funded and well supported. A strong high performance programme needs to have a bit of vision around it. I’m not sure it’s quite there at the moment.
“I think we can do more with the age-group programmes because there is so much potential. As a kiwi coming in, I was so happy with the talent, attitude and depth in the country.
“When you have good numbers, we could focus harder and make sure we are bringing through top international players.”
His outline would see a well-funded national program which works “365 days a year and supports your absolute best athletes”.
This should work in tandem with an Under-21 program “which doesn’t have to be hugely funded” but is “cleverly run” to give 25 to 30 athletes top coaching throughout the year.
In addition, an Under-18 group of 30 athletes and Under-16 set of 35 to 40 should work more frequently, “dipping into high performance training”.
“You need provincial programmes leading into the national programme. There’s some of that in place but it can be planned better. There are some fine structures in place but it’s tying them all together and making them better.”
In many other countries, centralised contracts have been seen as the way to go, a theory Irelan subscribed to briefly in the recent years. But Smith strongly disagrees that this is the way to go and says Ireland has the geography to avoid uprooting players from their homes and families.
“I think Ireland is beautifully built for players being able to live at home and travelling to train. For example, Cliodhna Sargent lives in Cork and it takes a couple of hours to come to Dublin.
“She spends a night up and we do four sessions; if she spends two nights, we do six training sessions. I am not into this centralised stuff. It’s great in Australia where you have players in Perth, flying eight hours to train. We’re not, we’re in Ireland and we can do this.
“I would love to see the continuation of support from the Irish Sports Council. They have shown a history of belief and looking further than one result against USA. They will look at the fact we finished top of the pool, that we won three games in pool play and only lost on Sunday in a shoot-out to China. The Sports Council are great strategists and I would expect them to continue to support and for us to build our High Performance model.”
Looking to the future, Smith wholeheartedly believes Graham Shaw is the perfect man to step into the role, becoming the first Irish person to coach the women’s team since 1997.
“Every programme he’s involved with, he has success. Monkstown play a great style and win. His Under-18 programme won.
“Every time he’s been with our national programme, he has been superb. He had my full support when it was suggested to me. I said to Irish Hockey ‘you have a champion coach here. Get him in there’.”
Shaw’s immediate challenge is preparing a side for the European B division but the bigger picture sees Ireland look toward the 2018 World Cup, one which will expand to see 16 nations.
In tandem with the age profile of the side, Smith anticipates the guts of the panel can stay together and qualify Ireland for a world level event.
“I would love to see us there, not only being there but finishing in the top ten. One of my huge desires was to change the way we play the game, to have a more physical style and to play the game with more skill. Basically, to play the game closer to the core values of the Irish people with endeavour and a bit of attitude
“I would be surprised if we had wholesale retirements. The girls have better hockey in front of them than what they have behind them – our captain is 23 and has been one of the best players in the tournament.
“When I started the job, I had a list of ten things I wanted to achieve. One of them was a platform to launch the sport into the future. I think the World Cup in 2018 and the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 – this team can get there and I will be a happy man when that happens.”