Sean Dancer plots Ireland’s first steps on the road to Tokyo

New women’s hockey coach welcomes bursary deal rewarding players for commitment

Anna O’Flanagan, Róisín Upton and Ayeisha McFerran with newly appointed head coach Sean Dancer at the launch of the women hockey players’ bursary scheme at the Reflector Building on Dubin’s Grand Canal Dock. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Anna O’Flanagan, Róisín Upton and Ayeisha McFerran with newly appointed head coach Sean Dancer at the launch of the women hockey players’ bursary scheme at the Reflector Building on Dubin’s Grand Canal Dock. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

It was, Sean Dancer admitted, “a very difficult, weird, interesting situation all rolled into one” when he sat down for a chat with Graham Shaw in Auckland recently. Shaw was about to take over from Dancer, who had been the temporary head coach of the New Zealand women’s team, while Dancer was about to take over from Shaw as head coach of the Irish team. A straight swap, then.

“We congratulated each other. It was a case of, ‘here’s some information which will probably be handy for you, any questions?’ It was very strange,” he laughed. “But we were open and honest. I really valued that chance to talk to him.”

The Australian, who arrived in Ireland last week after spending 10 years working in New Zealand hockey, was speaking at the announcement in Dublin of a four-year deal with property group Park Developments that will provide funding for members of the women’s squad, augmenting support already received from Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland.

Hockey Ireland say that the investment will be “ring-fenced for direct player support”, the aim being to ease financial pressures on the squad and allow them more easily divide their time between hockey and their jobs or studies. But with no figures mentioned, it’s impossible to know just what impact the deal might have, particularly for those players in jobs where working part-time is not an option.

‘Starting point’

Dancer, though, welcomed the deal which, he said, was “a really good starting point. We can now compensate the girls for a couple of days a week for their time. What we’ll probably start with is a three-day week where we get the girls in, say, on a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and that will allow us do three days of full hockey before they go back into their work or studies. It’s a good transitional period, rather than going from minimal hockey to a full-hockey week. We don’t want a hockey ‘bum’ who just concentrates on hockey, because sometimes that doesn’t give you a good person at the end of it – whereas now we can get a really good life and hockey balance.”

Dancer won’t actually take up his position as head coach until after the FIH World Series Final in Banbridge which starts in 20 days, the feeling being that it was too short a period for him to get to know the players and prepare for what is the first stage in the team’s attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games. Instead, former Ards coach Gareth Grundie, who was part of Shaw’s coaching team, will take charge, with Dancer taking on a supporting role for now.

The programme is so heavy for the first six months, we have the World Series, the Europeans and the Olympic qualifiers

The 44-year-old, who met the players for the first time on Saturday, will be based in Belfast rather than Dublin, a personal choice because he has friends in the region and, for now at least, he will be separated from his family back in Auckland.

“The programme is so heavy for the first six months, we have the World Series, the Europeans and the Olympic qualifiers, so my wife will stay in New Zealand with our 4½-year-old daughter. My wife is just starting a PhD so the timing for her is not quite right. After the first six months we’ll have more of a handle on things and we’ll go from there.”

Build-up

With Shaw’s departure, Belfield being unavailable to host the tournament because work on laying the required new pitch has only just begun, and the team going into the tournament having not played a single senior international since March (Canada pulled out from a four-match series due to financial constraints), the build-up has hardly been ideal.

“I suppose it’s made it a little bit tricky,” said Grundie. “But in high-performance sport you have to be prepared and make the best of what you have. With Graham leaving, obviously there’s huge disappointment whenever you’ve had a connection with someone who you’ve done so well with, but while we wished him the very best with his opportunity, our focus has never shifted from trying to qualify for Tokyo.”

International player Anna O’Flanagan said “of course it was a disappointment” about Shaw leaving. “But it’s not often you get a chance to move to New Zealand with your family and it will be the experience of a lifetime for them and Graham. We’re so grateful to him for everything he did with us and we wished him the best of luck. But we can’t dwell on that. We have a superb management team and Gareth has done an exceptional job of leading the programme since Graham’s departure. And now there’s the appointment of a world-class coach in Sean Dancer. They are exciting times.”

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