New Irish coach Sean Dancer says there will be a “couple of tricks up our sleeve” when the Green Army take on England and his long-time mentor on Sunday in his first world ranking game in charge.
Indeed, the small, interwoven world of international hockey coaching sees apprentice trying to take down the master in Antwerp at the EuroHockey Championships.
The neighbours from across the Irish Sea are also under a new regime this year with fellow Australian Mark Hager at the helm. Dancer was his assistant for five years with New Zealand up until the turn of this year.
“It is a small world,” Dancer told The Hook. “I enjoyed working under Mark’s leadership. For me, I learned a lot about style of play and what I wanted from my own coaching.
“We will also know a lot about what each other is thinking having worked together so much so I’m sure we both need to have a couple of things up our sleeve!”
It is a tough opener against the reigning Olympic champions, a side Ireland have yet to beat in a major world ranking match. Indeed, the sides have met six times in the Euros and England have won all six, conceding twice and scoring 20 times.
In that context, it is a challenge Dancer is relishing, particularly with a side high on confidence following last summer’s World Cup silver and the run to the FIH Series final.
England, for their part, are rebuilding to some extent with just seven of their Rio contingent still in situ while their Pro League campaign was mixed, ending eighth out of nine.
They do have some big names back, though, after long lay-offs with Maddie Hinch returning from a break, Shona McCallin in after 16 months out with a concussion-related injury and Susannah Townsend also available after injury issues.
“It’s a nice challenge to try and get that first win in a ranking match,” Dancer said. “For me, not being involved in games like that with the neighbour-kind of rivalry, it will be interesting to see how everyone handles it.
Watching the Pro League, they have certainly done some good things. Their speed is strong through midfield which we have to manage and then get at their defence where their experienced players are, get in behind them to create stuff.
“They also have the world’s best keeper back again so we need to be on song to put her under pressure.”
As for his own side, he is also buoyed by a returning goalkeeper with Ayeisha McFerran available despite missing the successful Italian and Scottish series.
“We had a few injury niggles going into the Belgian series. What we needed after that was to see if everyone was able to get through the tournament. Ayeisha is a key athlete for us and in good enough condition so she arrived with the team on Tuesday. She got through a good solid goalkeeping and fitness session so we are pretty confident she will be 100% for game one.”
Nikki Evans forced her way back into the team following omission from the FIH Series, scoring three times in her last three games.
“Nikki has certainly been working hard – as are a lot of girls – and what’s really pleasing for me is she is really starting to do those things we are talking about in training. She scored a couple of good goals lately and that certainly helps with selection!”
Specifically, from a tactical perspective, Dancer is pleased her aggressive approach lends itself well to his coaching philosophies.
“Me coming from that Oceania-attacking background, it’s a style of play I have always grown up with and know. Working with the team more, they are actually really enjoying the change of mindset.
“It’s certainly something we want to do to the best of our ability. Does it mean we move the focus away from defence? It’s still hugely important but we are looking for more opportunities where we can be attacking.”
That has borne fruit against lower-ranked sides with some big scores being posted recently. The challenge is now to apply that to games against the likes of England and Germany (next Wednesday) – as well as lower-ranked Belarus on Monday – in this European group to give a real shot at reaching a first-ever semi-final.
“We had our team meeting on Tuesday – it was very much about performing well under tournament pressure. We weren’t talking about results or that Olympic qualification. It was about ticking the boxes we need to tick in each box and everything else takes care of itself.
“We do have high ambitions for the group and we have a good chance in this group. Get off to a good start against England and you do put yourself in the frame for a semi-final so it is something we will target.
“Living in Australia and New Zealand, you always see the Euros as a really big competition but it’s not until you start to be in it that you see how cut-throat and tough it is. We just need to do the best we can.”
EuroHockey Championships schedule (all in Antwerp; Irish times)
Sunday, August 18: Ireland v England, 10.15am
Monday, August 19: Ireland v Belarus, 2.45pm
Wednesday, August 21: Ireland v Germany, 11.15am
Friday, August 23: Semi-final or relegation pool match
Sunday, August 25: Final, Bronze match or relegation pool match