Gareth Griffiths admits that he sometimes thinks about hockey more than his boss would like him to. Griffiths is not talking about his national team coach or the Hockey Wales chief. He is talking about his boss at Tacklebag, an online sportswear shop in London, where Griffiths is employed as the account manager in a full-time role.
Griffiths could be forgiven for being distracted in his job in the last few months since the defender would be travelling to India to represent Wales in the World Cup – the nation’s first-ever qualification.
Hockey isn’t the most notable sport in Wales with football and rugby being the popular choice among many. The sport, for Griffiths and a few, is a passion that they pursue on a part-time basis. A passion that has led them to the World Cup.
And to live out the dream, these players have been required to dig into their own pockets.
“Our funding is very limited. Our players contribute to the program,” said coach Danny Newcombe. “They pay at least £1000 a year to play for Wales.”
They didn’t even have a shirt sponsor until last year.
Hockey Wales CEO Ria Burrage-Male began a crowdfunding page to help the players book their flight tickets to India. The players’ family members have contributed to the fund and so have Spain’s coach Maximiliano Caldas, whose team will face Wales on January 15, and Belgian midfielder Florent van Aubel.
“Crowdfunding was just a way to reduce the cost for the players. Due to our recent performances, we have qualified for bigger tournaments. Whilst the government has been helpful and we now have a shirt sponsor for the World Cup, the gap between the money we have and what we need is quite big,” added Newcombe.
Similarly to Furlong, Lewis Prosser (PT and nutrition), Joe Naughalty (Head of hockey), Luke Hawker (Director of Hockey & Senior Lecturer) and Dale Hutchinson (Account and fulfillment manager) have jobs outside their life away from the club and international hockey.
“We have players working full-time as teachers, professors and accountants. Playing hockey for Wales is a part-time role,” says Kevin Johnson, Team Performance Director. Players have had to put in requests at their workplaces to go away with their national teams, while some have had to take leaves without pay to do the same.
Among the current squad, only three players – Jacob Draper, Rupert Sheppelley and Toby Reynolds-Cotterill – are considered to have ‘full-time’ jobs as an athlete through their contracts with the Great Britain Olympic programme.
The Team GB contract allows them freedom and provides them with an environment to play hockey without much distraction. This also gives them the stage to play against the best in the Pro League and an opportunity to play in the Olympics.
“We are very fortunate, we are in the minority [with Team GB contracts], hopefully, it will go up. The other boys have to work harder than we do, because they have to do stuff (training) in the evening with their jobs, while we can do stuff in the morning,” says the 25-year-old Reynolds-Cotterill.
Draper, who also works part-time in a finance firm, is another individual who considers himself advantageous to pursue hockey for a living. He also acknowledges the benefit of being in a surrounding that provided him the option of playing hockey to go with both rugby and football.
“Most schools don’t play hockey. I got asked to play because they were short on players. I said ‘Why not?’ I was awful for the first month or two and then I fell in love with it. I was 13 or 14 when I picked up the sport. I joined a hockey club called Gwent and I didn’t pursue football after that. It has paid off now,” says Draper.
Despite the struggles, the sport’s growth in Wales has seen a positive trend in recent times, but Furlong feels it needs more funding to push on from its world ranking of 15.
“We are not just here to take part, we are here to try and do something” Toby Reynolds-Cotterill, Wales goalkeeper
“The sport is growing. In the last couple of years, there are people both men and women being pushed into the GB program at both the senior and U21 levels. The challenge is the majority of us are working or studying and playing alongside it. You have to balance your time as much as you can. Obviously, you train twice a week with your club, so that you can turn up for these tournaments and compete,” says Furlong.
The common perception is that a sport’s growth is relative to the nation’s success in World events and a spirited showing in Rourkela and Bhubaneswar can help provide the push Wales so desperately needs.
“For Wales, it is the first one. We are not just here to take part, we are here to try and do something,” says Reynolds-Cotterill.
While there are not many expectations back home as the football counterparts did last year, when they qualified for Qatar and made plenty of noise around the world, the goalkeeper hopes the World Cup can help do the same for hockey in the country.
On Friday, Wales will take on hockey heavyweight England in what will be the first game at the newly-constructed 21-000 seater Birsa Munda International Stadium. Some 40 Welsh fans, who have flown down to Ranchi, are expected to make the travel down to Rourkela to cheer them on.
Explaining what it meant for Wales to qualify for a maiden World Cup, Reynolds-Cotterill says, “Within the hockey world? Big deal! But the hockey world is not the normal world. Hockey in Wales is very small so for normal people and in day-to-day life, it wasn’t really a thing. It was in the news but only as a small feature. Within the hockey world, it was a massive deal and hopefully, the hockey world will grow as a result of us being here.”
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