Their entire careers have been intertwined, so it was no surprise their comebacks were too. Cork Harlequins has been a central pillar in Karen Bateman and Rachael Kohler’s lives for so many reasons. Learning their hockey there as kids helped cement their friendship; both went on to be decorated Irish internationals and leading lights as the Farmers Cross club won an uninterrupted 15 Munster league titles, numerous Munster Senior Cups and the 2000 Irish Senior Cup. They even met their husbands in Quins, and are now sisters-in-law.
Eventually, family life took over. Both women have two children under six and thus had stepped back from the sport. Before 2013/14, Bateman had played just two of the previous five campaigns, while Kohler had retired in 2010, but last year, they decided to see if they could still do the business on the pitch. A few run-outs for the second team were what they had in mind, but that notion didn’t last long.
“We made a pact to go back, but I don’t think we thought we’d be able for first team hockey, the skill levels or the fitness,” begins Kohler, before a slightly embarrassed smile overcomes her. “But they (coach Stephen Dale and manager Robert O’Sullivan) made moving up to the first team too good a situation to turn down.”
Neither player had lost what had made them such stars in the 1990s and 2000s, and had kept up their fitness levels to remarkable standards. Dale had little hesitation in throwing them back into the Harlequins firsts for their successful Munster title defence and an assault on the Irish Hockey League. Both maintain it was their most enjoyable season in Quins colours.
“There was such a great mixture in the team,” says Bateman. “You’ve girls there who are 16, young, fiery with loads of spirit, right up to us grannies and others in between. There was no whingeing or giving out, no cliques, it was the nicest team I can remember playing on. The training was superb too – I looked forward to it, even on a December night in lashing rain up in Quins.”
“I wouldn’t want to count how many Quins teams I’ve played on,” admits Kohler, “But this was definitely the most enjoyable season to be part of. Every week Stephen brought something different to training.
“I thought coming back to hockey would get me fit, keep me busy and give me some time out – but I didn’t expect it to be so enjoyable, even though I don’t ever remember training as hard. That’s all down to Stephen and Rob.”
The duo made big contributions in a season that saw Quins named as Munster’s club of the year on the back of a domestic league and cup double and a promising showing in the IHL which saw them finish third in their pool, just missing out on a semi-final berth. Their performances even caught the eye of Ireland coach Darren Smith, many years – 11 in Kohler’s case – since they had last worn the green shirt with such distinction. They also helped Quins to an Irish Junior Cup semi-final – heartbreakingly losing to Pembroke Wanderers on penalties, a match Bateman admits “will give me nightmares”.
Returning to sport after starting a family presents any number of difficulties. For Kohler and Bateman, returning to top-level hockey meant a couple of nights’ training per week, at least one match per weekend and away days in Belfast, Dublin, Limerick, Fermoy and Bandon.
Both women have two young children – Karen’s sons Charlie and Jody are five and three, while Rachael has daughters Freya (4) and Nellie (3) – and are fortunate that their respective husbands Wesley and Alan are decorated hockey players in their own right who fully appreciate the commitment required.
“We grew up in Harlequins and met our husbands there, and they were supportive from day one, they were delighted we were going back playing,” says Bateman.
“I know one or two of my friends have gone back to hockey after having children and their husbands would be wondering how long they’re going to be and when they’ll be leaving, whereas ours are on the sideline cheering us on and the kids are with them.
“The whole family atmosphere in Harlequins is a huge thing for us – you’re not feeling guilty about playing. A huge thing for Wes is being up around the pitch, seeing Norman (Deane, Harlequins’ well-known groundsman), saying hello to everyone… Our four kids get on so well together, it’s like a playground. The family buzz up there is something you want to be a part of.”
Kohler and Bateman have shown extreme diligence and dedication in returning to a level of fitness to keep them competitive in top-level club hockey in Ireland. Both admit that match fitness took a long time to return, with Bateman outlining how explosive speed was the last piece of the puzzle.
“I distinctly remember in both years coming back after the babies, speed was the major thing. The ball would be there to be won, my head would be there but my legs would be behind me. Thankfully the two of us have known nothing but training, going for runs and gym sessions, it’s been built into us since we were 14 or 15 so I would always have kept my fitness up, but fitness for hockey at this level is a step up again. I’d to work harder than everyone else to get to that level.
“I’m competitive anyway, and I didn’t want fitness to be a reason for me not to get there – it’s within your control, whereas if you don’t have skill, you’re not going to get it at our age, you’re done.”
Kohler credits her coach Stephen Dale in helping to alter the duo’s mental approach since their return too, helping to rid them of the pre-match nerves that were a factor earlier in their careers.
“Both of us would have been players who might have psyched themselves out of big games before they’d even start. But this time I wasn’t as nervous. Daler helped us think about the game positively so instead of worrying, you’d value your time playing hockey, not doing family stuff for a change.”
Having made that leap to grace pitches around Ireland once more, it seems pertinent to ask both about the game they left and the one they’ve returned to.
“You only know some of the players now, which makes it more interesting; before you’d know everyone,” offers Kohler. “I honestly thought the general standards were better when I returned. For example, Ashton would have been a minority team when we were last playing, but now they have some seriously skilful players – they were our bogey team this season, and we conceded a lot of goals against them.”
“There was a better average level in the league this season, and things like players’ individual 3D skills have come on a lot,” says Bateman. “Previously, we won the league without too much bother; towards the end (of her first stint) UCC and Catholic Institute began to get good, and C of I were always there or thereabouts. But recently, it’s been UCC, Institute and ourselves all fighting it out for that title every year. Hopefully it’s that other teams have got better as opposed to our standards dropping.”
Despite those positive endorsements, both players are well aware that the fact they can still shine at the top level – plus the fact that no Munster team has made any impact in the IHL since Quins were beaten finalists in 2010 – suggests there is some way to go to reprise the early 2000s when the side were regulars at the business end of Irish competitions.
The young players that will hopefully get Quins there over the coming years are showing up well, though. Bateman was struck by the confidence the current tyros in the team possess.
“To be honest, no!” laughs Bateman when asked if she is often courted for advice by the next generation, while Kohler reckons it works both ways: “I’ve been learning things off them, actually! They have some super skills, they’re very relaxed and confident, in a good way.”
“There are times alright when you can see a younger girl’s head drop and you need to give them a lift, some encouragement instead of just telling them what to do,” continues Bateman. “They listen, and seem to appreciate those few bits and pieces but it wouldn’t happen very often – they wouldn’t come looking for things off us.
“When I was that age, playing in the Quins senior team with all the greats like Bernie Heffernan I was absolutely terrified, but these girls have far more confidence – I’d love to have had it. But they’re good listeners too, they take encouragement and advice. Daler treats everyone equally, he’d give out to or encourage me or one of the 16-year-olds in the same way, so that helps.”
So will they do it all again next year? Kohler, only half-jokingly, admits she’s afraid people will wonder if they are ever going to give up for good, while Bateman’s fear is not being worth her place. Neither’s ambition has been dulled; both admit that if there’s another season in their legs, they want to be aiming to lift Irish silverware, nothing less. But whatever happens next, they’ll do it together, just like they have all along.
“Daler and Rob staying on was one big “if” for me, and they are going to so that one’s been ticked off,” says Bateman. “The other is to do it together, or not at all. The reason this year was so enjoyable was that I wasn’t on my own out there. We might not always have been in the cars travelling together, or doing the drills together, but knowing there was another person in the same boat, with the same commitments outside of hockey helped. I’m definitely not doing it unless Rachael is!”
*All photos with thanks to Adrian Boehm / Irish Hockey Photographers