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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 19 June, 2019
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'It's a very interesting and weird situation with two coaches swapping countries'

New Ireland women’s hockey coach Sean Dancer wants to build on the job Graham Shaw has done after the pair swapped jobs.

THE JUMPER BARELY has a crease in it, and Sean Dancer — the new Ireland women’s hockey coach — has hardly had a chance to fight off the jetlag before appearing in front of the media. Time is of the essence, after all.

They may not admit it themselves, but it has been a testing winter for Hockey Ireland after a dream summer. Graham Shaw, the RTÉ Sports Manager of the Year, departed five months after guiding the team to the World Cup final, and the silence left a curious vacuum. There are still many unanswered questions.

Sean Dancer New Ireland head coach Sean Dancer. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The players, the heroes of London, chose to keep a ‘low profile’ rather than take advantage of the platform they had built for themselves. Granted many were away playing in Europe, but the decision to bury their heads in the sand only raised further suspicion. 

Ireland, under Shaw, endured mixed fortunes on winter trips to Chile and Spain, although the fact several young players were blooded in during those series must be taken into account when considering the performances and results. 

And then their long-serving coach left. Just like that. An opportunity too good to turn down in New Zealand as the head coach of the Black Sticks. 211 days after the World Cup final against Netherlands, Shaw walked into the office of Jerome Pels, Hockey Ireland CEO, to tender his resignation. 

Publicly, there was shock. But also confusion. Why now? Months out from the start of the Olympic qualifying process, and months after Shaw and every player had spoken at length about the team’s unwavering goal of reaching Tokyo. Together. 

The timing was more than peculiar, but how had Hockey Ireland lost another world-class coach, following the departure of Craig Fulton months before the men’s World Cup last year? Once is careless. Twice?

Where, or why, did it all change? Other than the official Hockey Ireland statement, and a short post on the team’s Twitter account, there was no public comment from any of the team on Shaw’s departure.

For a group of players so active on social media during their World Cup odyssey, and who used the platform to engage with new-found support, their silence was not only curious, but significant. 

Even now, two months on and three weeks out from the start of Ireland’s FIH Final Series campaign, all of this remains the elephant in the room. But the message from the players has been clear: there has been a change in coach, yes, but nothing has changed. 

The off-pitch upheaval hasn’t been the only bump in the road since London. The tournament, originally awarded to Dublin, had to be moved to Banbridge because of the farcical pitch situation at UCD, where the work has only just started on its redevelopment. Attendance figures could be severely impacted. 

And then Canada, due to play a three-match warm-up series in Dublin this week, belatedly notified Hockey Ireland they would not be travelling to fulfil the fixtures due to financial reasons, leaving the team — now under the guidance of Gareth Grundie — with a worrying lack of games before the biggest tournament of their careers.

That’s where Dancer, the former Black Sticks assistant coach, comes in. With Shaw and his young family heading south for a new chapter in their lives, Dancer has come the other direction. The pair, who came up against each other in the Belgian Hockey League during their respective playing careers, have traded places. Literally.

“I’ve known Graham for a long time,” the Australian tells The42. “We actually played against each other in the Belgian Hockey League a number of years ago and then obviously once we both started coaching internationally, you get to know the coaches quite well. I certainly think there has been a good relationship there for a long time.”

Ireland players celebrate with their silver medals Ireland will be hoping for more of the same in 2019. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Before Dancer, who only arrived in Ireland late last week, left Auckland he caught up with Shaw. To hand over the reins, or keys, so to speak. And to swap notes. 

“Yep, it’s a very interesting and weird situation with two coaches swapping countries,” Dancer admits. “We had a catch up in Auckland and had the opportunity to talk about it personally.

“We caught up and that’s the good thing about top-level international coaching, everyone is pretty open to sharing. It was great, we sat down and had a chat about my team, your team, their team. It got a little bit weird at one stage but it was great.”

As Dancer has only just settled into his new surroundings, the recently-appointed head coach will not, after all, be head coach for next month’s tournament in Banbridge. He has left that to Grundie, who was part of Shaw’s backroom team.

“Gareth is leading the team and for the Final Series,” he explains. “I’m only here to observe and get to know everyone.”

After a two-day mini-camp, the extended panel will re-assemble in Banbridge for another intense block of training tomorrow, before the final selection is made on 30 May, with Ireland’s Group A opener against Malaysia on 8 June. 

Encouragingly, the squad will have no shortage of contact time with each other over the next three weeks in preparation but the hope is that friendly fixtures against Ulster’s U18 men, Ireland’s U17 men and India’s U21 women will be sufficient warm-up outings. 

“The continuity was important,” Grundie says, referring to his role as coach for this tournament. “We had a plan in place for June prior to Graham’s departure and we’ve just continued that on.

“In any high-performance sport, things always change and we can’t control that. We’ve done the best we can and preparation is going fine. It has been a good year for Irish hockey and it’s important we continue that on.”

While Dancer was able to get to know his new players on a personal level last weekend, he will take a step back from the on-pitch business. For now, he’ll just observe and formulate his plans for the future — but if Ireland fail to fire over the next month, those future plans may not include Tokyo 2020. 

“With any high-performance team, there is always pressure and public expectation,” he says, with Ireland — ranked eighth in the world — firm favourites to win this home tournament.

“That’s a good thing, that’s the challenging environment we live in and want. You’ve got to be able to handle that.

“We don’t want the World Cup to be a one-off, we want that to be a stepping stone. We’ve jumped to eighth in the world and the focus now is to maintain that and qualify for Tokyo.”

Dancer, who was assistant coach to the New Zealand men’s team at the 2012 Olympics, brings plenty of experience and pedigree to the role and wants to build on the success Shaw achieved with this hard-working, talented and driven group of players. There’s no reason why he can’t.

Anna O'Flanagan, Roisin Upton and Ayeisha McFerran Anna O'Flanagan, Roisin Upton and Ayeisha McFerran at yesterday's sponsorship announcement with Park Developments. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

While last year’s magical run to the World Cup final was built upon a meticulous game-plan implemented by Shaw to maximise the use of Ireland’s strengths in defence, Dancer has already noticed small improvements he can make in the team’s approach at the other end. 

“I think the area we can improve on and start to really develop is that attacking style of play, score a few more goals, be a bit more threatening in the attacking area and for me that’s what is required to first of all qualify and then be successful at the Olympics,” he explains.

“Ireland have done exceptionally well and that was certainly based on their defensive style of play and ability to really keep teams out of the game. What I’m hoping to do is keep the strengths of the team and then just adapt and change a few of the attacking things.”

That will take time, surely?

“It will take time but also the mentality and thought-process around a few things is important. I’m not trying to change a lot of things, it would just be a few things here or there. 

“There’s more than enough potential within the group but importantly also beneath the group. I certainly like what I see: the type of athlete, their mentality, their awareness of the game. The building blocks are there.”

A difficult winter will quickly be forgotten if this team can become the story of the sporting summer again, only this time it will be with a new boss at the helm. 

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Ryan Bailey

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