Thursday, August 30, 2007

European Championships - The Sportways Connection

In the last three years, the amount of hockey camps for teenagers in Ireland has increased exponentially. Summer after summer, the cream of European hockey coaching is making it to Dublin to give the future of our sport the very best advice. But back in the barren mid 90s there was but one major camp, held in conjunction with the 1995 men's European Championships in Belfield. Twelve years on, the value of the inaugural European excellence camp held in Dublin back in 1995 was seen in spades last week in Manchester.

The Irish participants who took part in the first Sportways EHF camp twelve years ago are some of the most celebrated of recent international history; ladies captain Linda Caulfield and Ciara O’Brien who have amassed 280 caps between them as well as the men’s all-time top goal-scorer Stephen Butler while Graham Shaw assisted the camp coaches.

What may be less known is the success that some of the international campers have gone on to achieve in hockey circles. Among the visitors were three of the current Belgium bronze winning side in Manchester: Philippe Goldberg, Gilles Petre and goalkeeper Cedric Degreve, Italian ladies captain, Stella Girotti and the first reserve for the Netherlands, naturalised Scotsman, Laurence Doherty.

And while the players obviously benefited from the experience, a number of the coaches who cut their teeth at the camp went on to achieve international honours. Gino Schilders coached the Czech team in Manchester while Thomas Tichelman, who was one of the main organisers in Sportways back in ’95, is now the Dutch trainer. Current Italian manager Antonino Corsaro was also instrumental in promoting the Irish camp to Italian hockey players.

And the next generation of hockey stars is now being aided by the revamped Sportways camps that have been held in Three Rock since 2005. Joining up with local entrepreneur, Andrew Kenny (a member of Monkstown) who had successfully run camps in UCD, the Dutch company set about introducing their own brand of residential coaching camps in the Dublin mountains. The first camp saw international stars like Bram Lomans, Ronan Gormley and Phelie Maguire coaching the kids. Single day clinics were also introduced and have now spread to Cork and Belfast.

Of the second generation of Sportways participants, YMCA’s David Robinson and Ross Murray have both gone on to represent the Irish development side, two years after attending the camps. Perhaps in another ten years, they can be central to an Irish European championships success.

Everyone Else is Doing it So Why Don't We?

Nationality is a loose concept in international cricket. Ireland's success at the World Cup has shown how successful plundering foreign talent can be. Long may it continue - (This article first appeared in April 2007 in Comma Magazine - a DIT Student publication)

“We don’t show that English shite in here?” – St Patrick’s Day and Ireland had just beaten Italy in the Six nations. The barman of a Lahinch hostelry was in no mood to facilitate polite requests to stick cricket onto the big screen.

Four hours later, the whole bar was rocking along to 10cc’s classic lyric “I don’t like cricket … oh no… I love it!”

Ireland’s cricket World Cup campaign was the fastest zero to hero success story in this country’s sport since before Michelle Smith – before she got caught with whiskey in her piss. But much has been made of the amount of “non-Irish” players the side has employed to reach this pinnacle.

Whilst comparisons can be made with Jack Charlton’s plastic paddy brigade (who barely even needed an Irish granny at Italia 90) understanding why playing Aussies isn’t a problem requires and understanding of the wafer-thin importance of geography in cricket.

Early in his career, Kevin Pietersen upped sticks from South Africa in protest at his homeland’s quota system; a post-apartheid attempt to force cricket teams to have equal racial representation. Pietersen felt he was unfairly being excluded in favour of lesser players, simply because of race. He subsequently declared for England; showing his national loyalty two months later getting the three lions tattooed on his arm.

In the 2007 World Cup, Dougie Brown went one step further. In a move that sent Scottish nationalists into an apoplectic fit, he picked up caps for the teams on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall.

Cricket is littered with examples of the pick ‘n’ mix approach to nationality; perhaps most impressively by Kepler Wessels who managed to swindle the captain’s post in both Australia and South Africa. So, why shouldn’t Ireland jump on the bandwagon?

When Adi Birrell’s began his reign as Ireland cricket coach five years ago, the side had dropped below Denmark in the world rankings; a country with barely enough sunlight to complete a full day’s play.

This April, Birrell’s tenure ended as it started: in an eight wicket defeat. Only this time the drizzly sloping pitch at Clontarf was relocated to the roasting Grenada sunshine; the world’s second best side, Sri Lanka the opposition rather than boring old Nottinghamshire.

Not a single player played in both fixtures as Birrell overhauled the entire nature of the side. Ambivalence to international borders was Birrell’s first major aid. Trent Johnston and Andre Botha have long been local legends, the latter close to scoring 10,000 runs and taking 400 wickets in Leinster competition over the past decade. They were duly naturalised and co-opted into the national set-up.

Why shouldn’t they be allowed a crack at the world’s elite after all the time put in for the Blarney Army?

Birrell also had to replace Ed Joyce, who completed English naturalisation in 2006. Joyce was instrumental in Ireland’s qualification but, as the best player of his generation, was destined to become an opponent.

As it turned out, in a lethargic World Cup, characterised by empty stadiums, one-sided results and tedious dead rubbers, Ireland provided rare light-hearted, uplifting moments for the ICC. Birrell’s international recruits were integral.

“Aussie” Jeremy Bray’s century against Zimbabwe was an inspiration while Botha’s miserly spell against Pakistan was instrumental in the three wicket win.

And then there were the bowlers sublimely ridiculous celebrations! Johnston’s ‘funky chicken’ that debuted at his wedding and greeted the wicket of Chamu Chibhabha at Sabina Park and opened the floodgates for a series of ‘dances’. Dave Langford-Smith’s now legendary ‘ferret’ boogie has become a popular fixture on Youtube.

But as Irish cricket looks to build for the future, blurred international lines are ironically Ireland’s biggest threat. New Celtic cricket fans will expect Ireland to take on the English county circuit with gusto in the Friends Provident trophy. But they do so without wicketkeeper Niall O’Brien and Eoin Morgan.

Both are centrally contracted to English counties who take precedence over country. Boyd Rankin and William Porterfield’s efforts in the Caribbean were enough to merit trials with Derbyshire and Gloucestershire and they too could soon be unavailable.

Trent Johnston meanwhile is flirting with the idea of retirement. It seems his wife Vanessa is holding the key to whether he continues. In his Sunday Independent column, he said that “if she says its time to move on, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Birrell’s leadership has embraced cricket’s warped internationalism but the hand that feeds you can often bite you in the ass.

On Ireland’s national day of celebration, a collection of postmen, PE teachers, electricians and sheep farmers transformed Lahinch into a small enclave of Kingston town. To keep it so, Irish eyes will need to continue looking further a field.