Life and circumstance took me from Ireland to America earlier this year, but a small part of me was in Belfast last weekend. Munster’s U16 and U18 teams put in some titanic performances at the girls interpros in Stormont, both finishing second with the destination of the U16 title only decided in their 2-1 defeat to Leinster in the tournament’s final game.
Having been Munster U16 head coach for the past two and a half years, I had worked with all 36 players in these squads at different stages, so was personally invested in hoping they would achieve their goals and do themselves justice. There might not have been silverware, but both teams were a credit to themselves, their coaches and their families.
In some ways, the U16 success was bittersweet in that I was overjoyed for them, but sad I couldn’t be there to share the experience after coaching this age group for so long. The journey I went on as a coach during that period went something like this:
There were learning curves everywhere. I undertook two Hockey Ireland Level 2 qualification assessments during my time with Munster; eviscerated the first time around, I was better prepared 12 months later. The criticism, especially from some coaches who have plenty to say about interpro hockey but have never tried coaching a Munster team themselves, that followed a dramatic 4-3 loss to Connacht in front of a packed home crowd at Garryduff in 2016 sticks in the memory too. I tried to abide by the advice of the late, great Anthony Foley in dealing with it.
“I was never as bad as they said I was when we lost. And I was never as good as they said I was when we won.”
An interpro team takes more of your heart, soul and social life than most coaching gigs, without any financial reward. Similar to umpiring, it is something of a twisted joke that someone with no experience or training can get paid to coach a C-grade school team, but interpro coaches who require qualifications, proven ability and experience to develop elite players get nothing.
I put in around 200 hours a year between training, session planning, video analysis, travel, team bonding events, phone calls, emails and everything else that goes with it. I loved every minute of it. You are left rich in experience but poor in free time.
Part of the reason for this was the nature of the programme we designed. The motto was “more than a weekend”, which aimed to make the Munster experience about something beyond the interpro tournament in October for the players. Development squads were started for first years in Limerick and Cork to identify potential Munster players earlier, and get them to get to know each other and spend time together. Christine O’Shea, Darren Collins and others kindly gave their time and expertise to coach for free; Crescent College Comprehensive and Mount Mercy College gave their facilities at no cost.
For the U16 group itself, we selected 36-38 players and guaranteed not to drop anybody for two months so we could develop them all. Regular test matches were arranged against other provinces. The girls were given “unofficial” Munster jerseys to wear in those games, to make them feel like Munster players, rather than the usual mish-mash of Man United and Liverpool shirts, or whatever red garment they could get their hands on.
We gave them six weeks off so they could have a life during the summer, but then worked them hard come late July. There were cookery classes, outdoor adventure centre trips, anything to break down the school, club and county barriers that will naturally exist in a group of teenage girls drawn from across the province who are fighting for a place in the final 18. Almost 80 hours were spent on the pitch preparing for the interpros each year. The results might not have been what was desired, but I can only hope those players had positive experiences along the way that have helped prepare them for life and sport thereafter.
We had a good feeling about this year’s group from an early stage, and the plan was to focus largely on teamwork and work ethic, but then came my departure from Ireland, leaving a sense of unfinished business. I stayed in touch with the management team regularly and marvelled at the team’s exploits in Stormont. I could write a whole other blog post about what a superb guy Darren Wilkinson is, and what a great coach he is becoming at just 20 years of age. The team’s performances – and especially their willingness to go to the well for each other, playing for something bigger than themselves – were the best possible tribute to him, Clive, Steven and Sarah.
With both girls sides having impressed this year – and the U16 and U18 boys also having better tournaments than in recent years – it would be easy to assume all is well with elite player development in Munster. But the picture behind the scenes is more troubling.
At branch level, attempts have been made to professionalise and futureproof our elite player development pathways for boys and girls. Even when we are successful at interpro level, as a province we regularly have less Ireland triallists than Leinster and Ulster:
Last year’s U18 girls beat both provinces and finished second, yet only five girls were called up to the national panel compared to 10 from third-placed Ulster.
This year, Munster have only the fourth-largest representation of Irish triallists at the U18 age grade, despite finishing second at the tournament. Third-placed Leinster have twice as many triallists as Munster.
This year’s U16 girls finished second, were only denied a win over Ulster by a last-gasp penalty stroke and beat the hosts into third place, yet five more Ulster players were handed Irish trials than Munster ones.
These are not isolated examples, and the message is clear. A succession of Ireland underage coaches – who, it should be noted, are also volunteers – believe there are more players of a potential Irish standard in Leinster and Ulster than in the other three provinces.
We could rail against the perceived injustices here, or make accusations of historical or provincial bias, but ultimately all Munster can do is sort its own house out and try to put in place structures that are fit for purpose. Leinster’s development squads are proving to be an excellent breeding ground for elite players and coaches alike, but we have nothing of that ilk.
Some have tried to get these off the ground in Munster, but the projects tend to run solely on goodwill and fresh air, and fall by the wayside when the volunteers behind them move on from their roles, as was the case with John Hobbs and Eddie Gash’s Munster Cheetahs Talent ID programme in the 2000s.
Similarly, since I left the coaching and development chair in May, no replacement has been appointed. There is no coaching committee. The first year development squads haven’t yet resumed this season, and nobody seems to know if they will. Attempts to get these off the ground on the boys’ side have failed due to lack of coaching interest. It continues to be a huge struggle to get coaches to fill the interpro roles generally. Periodic talks of a high performance director seem fanciful with no budget to work with. I left a comprehensive, self-funding elite player development plan with the management committee, but they have no volunteers to implement it.
With a dedicated but overstretched management committee firefighting to keep the day-to-day running of the sport in Munster going, it is hardly surprising that future planning isn’t top of their agenda. Nobody from the schools has been willing to take the chairmanship of their side of the house, leaving long-term secretary Alice Browne to double-job. The branch has threatened numerous times to cease all hockey in the province if a year-long quest to find a vice-president drags on any longer.
It’s far from a stable picture and if we want the performances from this year’s Munster teams to become the norm rather than exception, some fresh faces are needed. I can’t stress enough how much my interpro coaching journey and the experience of sporting governance and administration benefitted me in numerous ways and helped prepare me for the rigours of full-time coaching in the USA.
If you’re a parent, coach or supporter who marvelled at Munster’s achievements this weekend, has some expertise and time to give and would like to see the province have more weekends like the one just gone by, I urge you to get involved.
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