New bursary scheme could change face of Irish hockey

Anna O'Flanagan, assistant coach Gareth Grundie, Ayeisha McFerran, head coach Sean Dancer and Roisin Upton pictured at the announcement of the Park Developments Irish Women Hockey Players’ Bursary Scheme. Pic: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Support for the Irish women’s team took a giant leap towards a semi-professional basis with the announcement that Park Developments will roll out a four-year support package which will see up to 23 players initially benefit from bursaries.

It offers the potential for a dramatic increase of “contact hours” with the funding going to compensate players, allowing them to go into camp for three days a week and not be out of pocket.

Striker Anna O’Flanagan, who attended yesterday's announcement, is one of the people who may directly benefit from the scheme. The 29-year-old put her legal job on hiatus in 2017 to pursue hockey “full-time”, moving to the Netherlands in the lead-up to the World Cup silver medal run in London. For many of her teammates – and indeed many Irish sportspeople in the Olympic realm – it meant taking long spells of unpaid leave and created strains in their personal lives as they juggle the demands of elite sport.

“It's more of a sustainable platform,” she said. “If you aspire to be on this team, you'd know this is your schedule, you'd know we train three days-a-week as a group and you'd have the rest of the days to work or to study.

“That's the kind of foundation we need. Before the World Cup, a few of us stopped working completely and you can't do that forever.

"It's not sustainable for your career but also from a mental point of view. It's good to have other things outside of hockey and this allows us to have a mixture of everything.”

It means plenty of decisions on the horizon for the striker. She just completed a successful season with Pinoke in Amsterdam, helping them to be the highest-finishing promoted team in the Hoofdklasse – the toughest club league in the world..

With the change of circumstances, she will have to weigh up a return to Ireland and how she can marry it with her professional development.

She was coy about what her plans but she will have no lack of club interest if she does not extend her stay in Amsterdam.

She would likely be one of the 23 yet to be confirmed players on the bursary list.

New coach Sean Dancer – who starts the role in earnest following June’s FIH Series finals in Banbridge – says the plan will put Ireland on a par with New Zealand, the programme he left to take up the Irish job.

Indeed, it matches what is done in the Netherlands and Belgium. For the Dutch, squads train together from Monday to Wednesday before going back to club, work and study commitments for the rest of the week.

Dancer says that will be the target now direct financial support is in place for players rather than the regulation Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland money for the high-performance programmes.

“The ideal would be a three-day week where they come in Sunday, Monday, Tuesday for three days of full hockey,” Dancer said.

“That’s a really good starting point for getting a full-time hockey athlete. It’s also a good transition from fairly minimal hockey to a full-hockey week. If you go all the way, you get what I term a ‘hockey bum’ who just concentrates on hockey because it doesn’t give you a rounded person. Now we can get a life-hockey balance.”

It ticks another box from the wish list laid out by the players following the World Cup. The other major one was a full-time training base, something which is now in train at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown and is likely to be finished by September.

For the moment, the side are based in Banbridge, the venue for the Series Finals, for the next three weeks. A large panel was overseen by interim coach Gareth Grundie along with Arlene Boyles and U21 coach Dave Passmore.

Grundie informed a group of 24 players on Sunday they are still in the running for the tournament which is part of the Olympic qualifying process. The final 18 will be named on Friday, May 31st ahead of the tournament opener against Malaysia on June 8th.

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