Jeremy Duncan says his move to Belgium to take up a contract with Herakles is part of a “conscious decision to live a high performance lifestyle and see how far I can take myself”.
By his own admission, he may not have been in the right headspace to pursue that lifestyle when he first made his Irish debut in his teens. But since finishing his degree and a four-month stint traveling, he is “giving it everything” to be the best he can be.
Taking up professional terms with Herakles is an important step. The Lier club, based on the south-east outskirts of Antwerp, have been a fairytale story in the Audi League, coming out of nowhere to land second place behind three in-a-row champions Dragons.
It means EHL hockey next season with a boisterous crowd (see video below) likely to follow them, both factors that swayed Duncan to join ahead of a couple of other offers in Belgium.
“EHL is something every young fella wants to play in,” he told The Hook. “That was a big draw. Seeing the crowds and the atmosphere they have, it looks really good and that was a big deciding factor in the move.
“I wouldn’t have followed Belgian hockey that much other than when the [Irish] guys were over there. You knows Dragons, Racing, Leopold, teams in the EHL. Other than that, I hadn’t heard much about them. They usually are bottom six but they have obviously got something good going on now.”
It is an ambitious move, the latest in a career that has seen plenty of miles traveled. He was born in Australia, first picking up a stick at “age three or four” with his mother, Valerie Parkhill, the instigator.
An Irish Senior Cup winner with Old Alex, she was part of the famous Irish team that won the 1983 Intercontinental Cup winning side in Kuala Lumpur. His father, Tony, “had never seen a stick in his life until he met my mum” and he remains a rugby man though Jeremy adds: “I don’t think he has missed a game [of mine] in four years!”
They moved to Ireland full time when Jeremy was nine with his father taking up a role in Kilkenny College. As a result, for his entire secondary school life, his son tag-teamed rugby and hockey at different stages, eventually ending up at Railway and in Irish underage sides.
“He would have been trying to force a rugby ball into my hands! In school, I did give up [school] hockey for sixth year to play rugby with a good senior cup team and it was always back and forth between the two.”
“In second year, I also played rugby mainly and only played one hockey match against Wesley. Off the back of it, I got selected for Leinster Under-16 trials. It took off from there.
“After the tournament, Tony Spillane [father of team mate Jeff] said ‘you’re not playing hockey at the moment, do you want to come up to Railway?’
“I started off with their Under-16s, played a couple of games and then was thrown straight into the deep-end. I played one seconds game and then into the firsts. We had a group of five of us and we all learned the hard way!”
It did mean traveling up and down from Kilkenny to Sandymount up to four times a week for training with club and the Irish Under-18s as well as matches. After two years of traversing the M9, it was time to ease off, a move that paid dividends.
“In sixth year, I played rugby all week and then hockey just on Saturdays. It was refreshing and I played some of my best hockey. I would look forward to it, challenging myself because we were playing at a high level as opposed to school where the standard was so low and I would get bored.”
That season ended with the 2012 Irish Senior Cup final, Railway’s first appearance on that stage since 1975. It was his last game for the club before linking up with UCD where he spent the next five seasons. At Belfield, it was a veritable mixed bag, a rollercoaster of promotion, relegation, missed chances and major achievement, the rapid swings of college hockey.
“The first couple of years, moving away from home, trying to live a college lifestyle but also live a high performance lifestyle,” he said of the divergent attractions of a sports scholar’s life.
“At times, I realised the two of those don’t fit. Personnel-wise, we had phenomenally talented teams in the first two years. If things had been done differently and maybe attitudes been different, we could have been top two or three in Ireland.
“The frustrating thing was everyone knew that but the way it worked out, it is one of the regrets from UCD that we didn’t get the success we should have.”
During that time, Mick McKinnon came calling during his spell as interim Irish senior men’s coach, giving Duncan his senior debut at the age of 19. He admits, though, that, he probably was not ready to push on with the panel.
“To play sport at that level, it is a lifestyle choice whether you give yourself to high performance. It has to be the right time for you and it wasn’t for me.
“I was living a college lifestyle and wasn’t ready to put things on hold and give it my all. I had my degree to worry about. Was it a conscious decision? Maybe, maybe not. But I certainly wasn’t ready; I wasn’t playing good enough hockey and wasn’t in good enough condition physically.
"Building up to Rio, others were in a completely different headspace and a very different condition. I didn’t see Rio as being a realistic opportunity and I was ok with that.”
An exodus from UCD meant a massive rebuilding phase – “there was a panic when we had just four people left in our Whatsapp group!” - but Duncan’s third year brought a new sense of belonging as he took on a leadership role in reviving fortunes.
“It was great to see a lot of people step up and take pride in the club. It paid off, maybe not success-wise, but it was great in building that atmosphere with people enjoying their hockey again.
“In my fourth year, we got that bit of talent back in and the results; getting promoted to the IHL was the highlight of my college career.”
His performances in earning promotion put him in Craig Fulton’s thinking for the national panel. He took the Olympic summer to go traveling but, on his return, the forward continued to impress and he joined the post-Rio training panel in October.
“I said I was going to give it everything and, this time, it was very much a conscious decision to live a high-performance lifestyle and see how far I can take myself. It obviously brings in why I am moving to Belgium.
“With getting promoted with UCD [in 2016] and being a driving force in it, I knew I was on the right track. I was enjoying my hockey which took a while to come.”
UCD’s club season just gone, after a promising opening, ended with relegation at the hands of Cookstown in a playoff, a tie Duncan says he still has nightmares over, letting slip a 2-0 lead.
But the forward’s form held through a pre-Christmas series in Spain and selection for World League Round 2 in Stormont in March to become a more central player.
“It’s a massive step up; any international you play is tough. They were perceived weaker teams [at HWL2] but the intensity is so much higher.
“You do ten times more running than an IHL game; as a forward, you don’t get on the ball as much and you spend 99% of your time running. When you get the ball, you have to do something with it. It’s a different game. At club level, you are on the ball 30 or 40 times a game. It’s a change of mindset.
“There were times where I really struggled but, as it went on, I realised this was the standard I want to play at. Once I got that in my head, my performances improved.
“You will have those games when you look back and realise you did well, where you realise that you can play at this level with video evidence to back it up.”
The battle for places has ratcheted up a notch in recent weeks with the return of Olympians like Alan Sothern, Kirk Shimmins and John Jackson for the Pakistan series.
It means there are 29 players in the panel fighting for places in the World League Round 3 squad and August’s European Championships.
“There’s an awful lot of competition for World League 3 with the Olympians coming back in. They bring the standard up and is driving us young lads up to their level.
“At some stage, we have to be the ones to force them out of the squad. They are not going to just leave, we have to replace them and push up the standard to put ourselves forward for selection. World League 3 would be fantastic to play in.
“It’s another huge step up but once you realise you can play at that next level, the confidence comes.”