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'The turning point': Ex-Ireland rugby international played a key role in World Cup success

Gary Longwell’s work with the women’s hockey team as a performance coach has been widely praised.

FROM AN ENVIABLE dressing room bond to the joyous freedom in which they played on the world stage, one of the striking aspects of Ireland’s seismic achievement in London was the team’s belief and trust in one another.

Ireland celebrate winning the shoot out Ireland played with freedom at the World Cup. Source: Sandra Mailer/INPHO

Under the management of Graham Shaw, the squad used the anguish of a series of near misses to turn the tide and change the culture within the group, cultivating a no-excuses mantra and inner confidence when nobody else was taking much notice.

The agony and heartbreak of missing out on successive Olympic Games by the finest and cruellest of margins would have derailed the journey of a lesser group, but those setbacks infused the players with added hunger, desire and commitment, each and every one of them sharing a unique connection having been on this white-knuckle ride together.

And it was evident throughout their fairytale World Cup odyssey, with Katie Mullan leading the team out for each game with smiles across their faces before belting out the words of Ireland’s Call without a care in the world.

It was this no-pressure attitude, and promise to themselves that they would relish, enjoy and savour every minute of the experience having qualified for the first time in 16 years, which proved so crucial in their success and extraordinary run to the World Cup final.

Additionally, the way in which the players carried themselves both on and off the pitch further endeared them to the nation, who became engrossed by what they were doing and shared the joy with the team as if they had known each and every one of them personally for years.

The turnout on Dame Street last Monday reflected that and was a true measure of the impact Shaw’s side made, both as role models for younger generations and ambassadors for the country.

And all of this — the change in attitudes, the togetherness, the no-fear approach — was developed over a number of years, but really came to fruition as recently as last month when the team were in Cork on a pre-tournament training camp, during which they played three warm-up games against Japan.

They lost that series 2-1, but it was off the pitch where the most valuable work was done, so much so that players described sessions with performance coach Gary Longwell as ‘the turning point’ for the squad.

Longwell, the former Ireland and Ulster rugby player, has been working with the women’s national team since 2015 after being brought in by the then head coach Darren Smith, and his influence has steadily increased.

“Gary is the most unsung hero,” Gillian Pinder, who scored two penalties in the semi-final shootout win over Spain, explained.

Gary Longwell Longwell won 26 caps for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He just kinda sits in the background and when he decides to have an input into whatever it is we’re doing, he just makes an absolutely massive difference.

“I think the turning point for us was down in Cork a couple of weeks ago when we played against Japan and he just started addressing loads of different things from how we carry ourselves and our body language to communication between players and staff.

“I’m so glad we had that discussion because we came to a World Cup a week later and did really, really well.”

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Longwell, who was a member of Ulster’s Heineken Cup-winning squad in 1999 before going on to win 26 caps for Ireland, is employed by the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland (SINI) as a performance coach.

With a Masters in Sports Psychology, the former second row has previously worked with the Ulster academy and has clearly had a big impact within the women’s hockey set-up, particularly in preparation for the team’s first major tournament.

“It could be absolutely anything he helped us with — from how to implement certain tactics that Graham had asked us to do, to the mindset of how we become more aggressive and not letting opponents beat us,” Pinder continued.

“It was everything like what are we going to do if we go a player down, if we’re chasing a game. It was the mindset to everything that we do, on and off the pitch.

“That’s a new element to our set-up. Gary has been with us for a while but I think we got the most out of him this year, for sure.”

Longwell was with the team for the early stages of the tournament in London and although he had to return home before its conclusion, was available to talk to players at any stage regarding the non-technical side of the game.

“Gary has done wonders for us in terms of how we communicate,” Deirdre Duke said.

Members of the Ireland Women's hockey team with Sean Og Nash The Ireland squad visited Crumlin Children's Hospital yesterday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It has changed the mindset of the group. Just the positive reinforcement and continuing to back each other and back ourselves.

“Gary has been working with us for a long time but it has really started to come right at the right time and the catalyst was probably Cork. It was good to have him.”

Shaw was also full of praise for the Belfast native, adding to the comments he made during the tournament that this group of players are the most tight-knit dressing room he has ever worked with.

“I think Gary has come in and done a fantastic job — not only in being honest with the players but also with management, particularly myself,” the head coach said.

“He has had a huge impact, and they are a very, very happy and together squad and that’s very, very important if you want to succeed in a team environment.”

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Ryan Bailey

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