Irish international midfielders Kirk Shimmins, Shane O’Donoghue and Stephen Cole have all taken up contracts in Belgium for the upcoming season.
Shimmins and O’Donoghue both join Dragons in Antwerp, a club which has a long history of bringing in the best Irish talent. Indeed, O’Donoghue won two Belgian titles there before returning to captain Glenanne to the EY Hockey League season title last term.
Cole joins his younger brother Lee at Oree in Brussels, raising the current total of Irish players to seven in the league, joining Conor Harte, Jeremy Duncan and long-time resident Brian Doherty.
For Shimmins, the move aligns perfectly with his studies, making for the ideal timing with the club being his preferred choice of a number of options, linking up with the Belgian champions.
“The opportunity to play abroad presented itself at a nice time,” the Rio Olympian told The Hook. “I always intended to finish my undergraduate studies before considering playing away.
“With the World Cup around the corner, it is a good chance to play in one of the best leagues every week for a top team like the Dragons.”
While there, he will do a masters at Antwerp Management School with whom the club also has a good connection. As such, he follows the path laid out by the likes of Stephen Butler – who is now involved in the club’s recruitment side – Graham Shaw, Joe Brennan, Eugene Magee, Kyle Good and O’Donoghue.
“Of course, when a club like the Dragons approached me, it was hard not to jump straight at the opportunity. After speaking to a few past players who thoroughly enjoyed their experience and then visiting the club earlier this year, I was immediately attracted.
“The environment and the people are extremely welcoming and it seems like a place where past players have developed friends for life.”
Shimmins – and O’Donoghue – will join Dragons at a time of change. World player of the year Arthur van Doren has moved to Bloemendaal while nine players in total have moved on from their first team panel.
A large tranche have arrived, too, including German international keeper Tobias Walter, joining superstars like Felix Denayer and Florent van Aubel, making them an interesting proposition to see how they adapt.
“It was apparent to me that the mindset has not shifted despite all of the changes,” Shimmins says of their project for the season.
“A club like the Dragons sets the bar extremely high, for obvious reasons. I do not think the objectives or goals set out will be any different than they have in previous seasons. This level of expectation was definitely an attraction.”
How this will impact on Ireland’s November’s World Cup preparations remains to be ironed out, especially in the wake of Craig Fulton’s resignation for a role with Belgium.
Shimmins says that the move to play “with and against some of the best in the world will undoubtedly help improve my game moving forward towards the World Cup” and that Dragons have agreed to be “supportive of any national commitments”.
“At the moment, we are not entirely sure what these commitments may be but it is comforting knowing that the club will support these whatever they may be.”
As for Fulton, Shimmins adds to the tributes paid to the coach from his former charges but is positive Ireland can continue to push on.
“Craig has been immense for both the national team and also me personally. How he thinks and his ability to push you to learn and develop is incredible.
“Fortunately he will leave behind what he developed – a resilient and talented squad. Of course, his departure will be a big loss but the team still stands for its values so in that sense nothing changes.”
Elsewhere, the European Hockey Federation have thrown a slight spanner into the works for Ireland’s intended return to international indoor hockey.
Hockey Ireland had confirmed its intention to start fielding in this form of the game. The women have been placed in the third and lowest division in Slovakia in January 2020.
However, the men have only been placed on the reserve list for Seville the same month and must hope someone withdraws to give them a chance of taking part.