Welsh Hockey Hoping for an Indian Summer

IT HAS gone down as the greatest day in the history of Welsh women's hockey.

Just over a year ago, skipper Leah Wilkinson's side stunned India, the world's No 10 team, to win their opening match 3-2 at the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

The result sent shockwaves reverberating around the Games village on the Gold Coast and sparked a record-breaking Commonwealths for Team Wales.

Coach Kevin Johnson is hoping the players can capture some of the spirit of those Games in what is a busy time for the national squad with two major events over the coming months.

First up is the Women's FIH Series Finals in Valencia in June - which carry crucial rankings points for future tournaments - with the European Championships in Glasgow following in August.

Sarah Jones Hockey

Credit: Commonwealth Games Wales

With women's sport in Wales never enjoying such a high profile, Johnson is keen for his players to continue to join in the feel-good factor.

"Beating India was one of the most historic, greatest wins we have experienced as a nation," said Johnson. "Those sort of wins give us the motivation and inspiration that on any given day if we keep working hard we have got an opportunity to take down a higher ranked side."
Success, though, and qualifying for major events not only puts greater demands on the squad in terms of time and commitment it also brings extra financial costs for players who are part-time and also juggling busy careers.

Johnson added: "We don't get the opportunity to play as many matches as we need to and matches are the best way of improving your game, but there is a huge cost just having two tournaments in one year.

"Sport Wales are fantastic and have been fantastic in trying to do whatever they can for us. 

"We now need to try and secure as much sponsorship as we can to help us push to the next level and increase our visibility as a sport. 

"There's a great movement and visibility in women's sport at the moment and I do believe our athletes are an absolute credit to their nation and real role models and pretty inspiring. 

"If companies could try and support us and our players and understand their back stories and achievements, that would be a great story for any company.

"We don't like to have player contributions for playing for their country but like most things, in order to play more the contribution needs to be more.

"That is why we are constantly on the search for a bit of sponsorship and for companies to help out along the way as we will improve our ranking position if we play more matches.

"Speaking of our physical preparation, strength, and conditioning, the players are the fittest they have ever been."

One Welsh player who is set for an even busier time is midfielder Sarah Jones who has also been representing Great Britain in the Pro League which has already taken her to Australia, China, New Zealand, Argentina and the United States this year.

The Cardiff-born player, another of the stars of last summer's Commonwealths, has a real chance of being selected for next year's Olympic Games in Tokyo, emulating Sarah Thomas who won bronze with GB in London 2012.

"Sarah has done well and she is a good member of that GB group and we have aspirations she might be able to play in the Olympics which would be great for Welsh hockey as we haven't seen that since 2012.

"I was her club coach at Holcombe from where I took on the Welsh role in 2016 so I knew her before I coached Wales. 

"It has been great to work with her, see her flourish and rightly get her opportunity with GB  as she is a great player in our set-up and one that deserves higher things."

The men's squad face a similarly hectic period with the FIH Series Finals in Malaysia (April 26-May 4) followed by the European Championships in Belgium.

Head coach Zak Jones said: "The key thing for us in Malaysia is that we can earn rankings points which will dictate qualification for future events like the Commonwealths.

"We come back from that and are straight into our prep for the Euros which are huge for us as we are in the top tier for the first time ever really.

"We have been in the top tier before when it was a 12-team tournament. The last time was 1999 when I was fortunate enough to be playing which shows how long ago it was.

"Since then, when it went to two divisions of eight we've never been in the top tier. 

"We are in a pool with Belgium who are the current world champs, Spain who are going pretty well at the moment, and England so it will be a big ask. 

The big challenge for us is trying to do as well as we can and stay in the top tier for two years time and just playing those higher ranking teams more regularly and earning those ranking points which are so important."

Jones, whose side were within two minutes of drawing with England after leading 2-0 in the Gold Coast, added: "We had hoped after the performances at the Commonwealths we would get some sponsorship in even if and we'd be able to reduce players' contributions.

"It's tough as a coach to be asking as much as we do of them. Some of them have to miss work, others have to take unpaid leave or holiday and we're also asking them to contribute. 

"That's our biggest challenge at the moment trying to find some sort of solution."

One of the spin-offs of Wales' improved performances in recent years is that several players have been signed by top clubs in Germany and Holland.

That includes Swansea-born defender Dan Kyriakides who hopes his time in Germany will boost his chances of making Team GB in Tokyo.

"Dan spoke to GB about playing in Germany, he felt it would be better for his development," added Jones.

"I thought he was outstanding at the Commonwealth Games and when his contract finishes in a couple of months time I know GB have invited him back in to train so they will review where he is at that point.  He is in contention for the Olympics."