Olympics

The miracle worker who took on the Black Sticks

A massive year for the Black Sticks women starts this weekend - so who is the Irishman guiding them, hopefully, to their first Olympic medal? David Leggat finds out.

Graham Shaw admits there were plenty of times when he wondered whether he had chosen the right sports career path.

You see, as a teenager, Irishman Shaw showed signs of being a distinctly promising footballer, as well as a more than useful hockey player.

He quips that his bank balance may have been healthier had he pursued the football path. But instead, around the age of 17, he opted for hockey.

It was in his family, and he liked the people and the spirit within the sport.

So the die was cast. Now, fast-forward about 20 years.

After leading the Irish women’s hockey side to runners-up at the World Cup in 2018 - stunning the hockey world and helping push them towards Olympic qualification for the first time and a meteoric rise to world No. 8 - Shaw took over the women’s Black Sticks in the middle of last year, replacing Australian-born Mark Hager.

Shaw, a 151-cap international player for Ireland from 2001-10, says he’d always admired the Black Sticks’ way of playing. And having been in the country, he loved what he saw away from the hockey field.

When he knew it was time for a change, and the New Zealand job came up, it was, as the 40-year-old puts it, “a no-brainer decision”.

“I’d seen a bit of the country and just had a real feeling that it’s a place I’d love to live if I had an opportunity, and to give that to my family [wife Ali and children Jack and Ellie] as well," Shaw says.

“I’d had a huge interest in the Black Sticks as a follower from afar, how they go about their business, their style of hockey and the level of players in their team.”

Put it all together and Shaw is chuffed with his situation as he prepares for the second edition of the global Pro League. It starts for the world No. 6 Black Sticks with two tests against 12th-ranked Belgium at North Harbour on February 1 and 2.

Graham Shaw’s smarts around the European game could take the Black Sticks to fresh heights at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

Last year, New Zealand finished sixth in the inaugural Pro League - an eight-nation round robin tournament - with six wins and 10 losses. They were capable of better and now it’s up to Shaw to turn that expectation into reality.

So what is the man from Dublin’s style – carrot or stick or…?

“I’m very passionate and I like to give players a lot of belief, challenge them in the right way, but I’m also a very caring individual,” he says.

“I try to create a fun environment as well so they can grow and learn, and not be worried when they make a mistake.

“I want them to ask questions. I’m not there as a dictator, more facilitating a team to achieve their goal.”

Shaw knows it’s important that while trying to impose his thoughts on how to play the game, not to lose sight of a team’s strengths.

“We’ve got a lot of physical capability in our team so that will be an element in how we play the game,” he says.

“But we need to be quite adaptable and flexible. Going into the Olympics, you wouldn’t want just one plan. But it’s about playing to team strengths.”

Shaw’s first game in charge was against the United States midway through last year’s Pro League. But now it’s entirely his show, his selections. So what were his first thoughts when he clapped eyes on the players he’d inherited from the Hager reign?

“From where I’d come from, it is quite a different style of hockey. There is a little more technique and element of control in the European game,” he says.  

“Here there’s maybe less emphasis on that. So it’s an area we’ll focus on, without taking away the aggression and speed we can play at.”

Graham Shaw with Black Sticks players Ella Hyatt-Brown (left) and Ella Hope. Photo: Hockey NZ.

The Black Sticks squad has been strengthened ahead of the Pro League by the decision of two outstanding players to come out of retirement for one last tilt at the Olympics.

Former captain and midfield organiser Kayla Whitelock and free-scoring attacker Gemma McCaw are back in the squad.

Considering the Black Sticks have lost a wealth of experienced players since the 2016 Olympics – which ended, for a second straight Games, in a heart-breaking fourth-place finish – these two provide a welcome chunk of wisdom. And it’s been a big step for the mothers of young children too.

“I was delighted when Kayla and Gemma put their name in the hat for selection,” says Shaw. “They had performed at a very high level in the National Hockey League [late last year].

“There’s invaluable experience they’d learnt over many years and campaigns. That’s going to be huge for the squad.

“They’re outstanding people and I have no doubt they will improve our environment and help players grow and learn. It’s also a credit to their families that they’re willing to make this sacrifice.”

Back to Ireland, who will also be at the Olympics for the first time. In a country where Gaelic football, hurling, football and rugby - roughly in that order - hold sway, consider the impact the World Cup final appearance had on the game of hockey there.

“It’s been huge,” Shaw says. “The Gaelic sports are always going to be quite dominant but attendance levels for hockey are up 100 percent, clubs are full and looking to expand facilities.

“For the Canada qualifier [drawn 0-0 over two legs at the start of November, but the Irish winning the shootout 4-3 to confirm their Olympic ticket] there were 6000. Two years ago, maybe you’d have got 200.

“It’s definitely brought the sport to a whole new level and hopefully Ireland can capitalise on that in the next few years and look forward to a really good future.”

Crowds of up to 15,000 greeted the team on their return to Dublin – “they closed one of the main streets. It was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime in hockey. You pinch yourself.”

Now add in that Shaw and his women won the Irish sports coach and team of the year; Shaw pipping New Zealander Joe Schmidt, the mastermind behind Ireland’s recent Northern Hemisphere rugby triumphs.

“That was such an honour and privilege to even get nominated. But to win? Yeah, pretty big,” Shaw admits.

“That was a huge moment personally and for the team. I don’t think we realised the support we had back home. I didn’t think in my lifetime I’d see that happen in our sport. It was very, very cool.”

The Olympic draw is out and the Black Sticks and Irish are in different pools. New Zealand are in a group with Australia (world No. 2), Argentina (3), Spain (7), China (10) and Japan (14).

The Pro League will take up most of what would have been preparation time for most of the teams in the Olympic field.

Shaw acknowledges there will be times he’d rather have his players either in a camp environment, or playing a series of games with an emphasis on tactical readiness or strategies, rather than have points in the Pro League at stake.

But that’s the way it is. He does have a couple of unofficial internationals against India today and on Wednesday before the league starts. As Shaw points out, he’s unlikely to be the only coach who might prefer a different, more tailored Olympic preparation.

Still, it’s exciting times for both coach and squad. Who knows, Shaw’s knowledge and smarts around the European game might just take the Black Sticks to fresh heights come Tokyo.

Shaw is contracted to Hockey New Zealand until the 2022 World Cup. It’s early days, but he makes it clear the idea of extending that, from both the lifestyle and coaching aspects, has plenty of appeal.

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