With the 2014 Commonwealth Games only three months away, Andrew Lovat talks to one of Scotland’s most established players, Vikki Bunce. The no-nonsense veteran of the Melbourne and Delhi Commonwealth Games – and GB squad member in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics – sees the Glasgow Commonwealth Games as an opportunity for Scotland to produce their best ever hockey result at the four-yearly event.
Vikki, it must be exciting the prospect of playing for Scotland in front of your home crowd at Glasgow Green in the upcoming Champions Challenge. In the World Rankings there’s not too much space between the eight sides competing – from Scotland in 16th position to Korea’s 8th spot. How do you rate Scotland’s chances, particularly in the group stages, especially with the home crowd behind you?
It’s a really good level of competition and a great opportunity for us, especially with full-time training starting this month. It is an excellent opportunity for selection purposes and for players to stake their claim. As far as the tournament itself goes, in the last two Champions Challenges we’ve played in we’ve finished third and fourth which was above our world ranking place.
We tend to play better against higher quality opposition. It seems to bring the best out in us. We dig deeper and, because we play good hockey, we cope against the top teams. So I’m hoping we come in the top two in the group stages
As far as our group goes – we drew with India in Delhi, Belgium are up-and-coming and doing well but are beatable, and Korea are a bit unknown to us. But on any given day, if we’re on form, there’s no reason why we can’t get a result against any of those teams.
Will individual performances at the Champions Challenge determine selection for Glasgow 2014?
They have to. It is so close to the selection date for the Commonwealth Games that positive and negative performances will always be taken into consideration. The difficulty is going to be who the coach is going to pick for the Champions Challenge, given that we started full-time training at the start of April and the tournament is at the end of the month. Selection is going to be a really difficult task – and as player group we haven’t sat down and had that discussion. For instance, is he [coach Gordon Shepherd] going to pick the team he thinks might be the team to play in the Commonwealth Games? Or is he going to pick different people giving them the opportunity to be seen, leaving his more experienced players out? We’ve no idea. We are just going into training playing hard and hoping to be selected.
You will obviously be excited about the forthcoming Commonwealth Games – how do you think it might compare to Delhi and Melbourne?
It is a massively exciting prospect, the thought of playing in front of your home crowd – and with Scotland being a relatively small country it will feel like a home game to everyone in the squad, regardless of which part of the country they come from. There’s a real buzz amongst the squad.
What do you think of Scotland’s prospects at Glasgow 2014?
Our aim is to do better than we’ve ever done before – and that’s a top four finish. So obviously we need to finish in the top two of our pool. That is definitely doable if we play at our absolute best. And with four months full-time training behind us, that will put us in a really good position to go out there and give the performances that are required to give us that top-two finish in the pool, and take it from there.
Can you give me a couple of your favourite moments in your Scotland international career?
Getting my 50th cap at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne against England was really special – we didn’t win, but it was momentous day for me nevertheless. And then there was my 100th cap in the Celtic Cup in Nice in which I scored – and of course my 150th in Rio last year in the World League. Captaining Scotland indoor two months ago was obviously really special too – I loved every moment of that! The girls were all great, it was a good programme and we played really well. It was such a happy time for me.
What kind of commitment does it really take to play for your country?
A big commitment, not just from the individual but, for instance in my case, from my employer Dundee High School. And a lot of the girls in the squad are in the same position and just as thankful. I couldn’t do what I do and give the time to what I do, without the support of my employer. I literally couldn’t give the time that’s needed for training and competitions, as it’s vast. And with all of us going into the full-time training programme from April to the start of the Commonwealth Games, that’s a lot of time off required from players’ jobs, and for others, time away from university etc.
For me personally, friends and family are a huge support, including helping me look after my young son Oscar. You just can’t do it all on your own.
How did you cope with not making the final selection for the London 2012 Olympic Games?
When I first got the call-up to the GB squad it wasn’t long after I’d taken time out to give birth to my son Oscar – and a lot of people said I wouldn’t be back playing international hockey after that. So, to get that call after Delhi 2010 to join the GB squad, was a surprise. And, of course, the rest of the GB squad had been training full-time for a couple of years already at that point. So with me going in at the end of January 2011 with under two years to go, my thought process was along the lines that my chances of being selected for that final 16 were slim. However, apart from the excitement of being given that fantastic chance, it was also a chance to be part of a great training programme and learn so much more about my own hockey in that environment – picking up different styles of play and playing with different types of players.
Any selection on top that would of course have been an absolute bonus. The catching up I had to do to get up to speed took about six months, but I loved every moment of it, and my confidence started to grow and I started thinking that maybe this was within my reach after all. But then, after being selected to go with the squad to Argentina in the months running up to London 2012 to play a four nations tournament warm-up, I got injured, stopping me from playing. That was a huge disappointment and, on reflection, had I been able to go out there, and really perform, things could have been different.
Obviously I’ll never know now, but at the time it was a real setback, and it felt like I’d had that opportunity to really impress snatched away from me – and ultimately I ended up moving back up to Scotland to to do my rehab and recover from my injury which was tough.
If I’m being honest, by the time it came to the announcement of the final squad of 16, I had already prepared myself for the news that I wouldn’t be making it, as I’d felt overall that I hadn’t performed well enough to be selected. However, at the end of the day the whole experience of being part of the programme was really special; and I do believe that the ethos put in place by the management and players during the training programme was brilliantly executed. It was the reason why the final chosen squad did so well at the Olympics.
To be part of the whole build up, in the two years I was there, is something I am so proud of.
Do you think there has been an impact of players moving south to join GB central programme – is that a problem for the overall standard of the league up here in Scotland? Do you think it’s necessary or indeed essential that players move south to further their hockey careers and firmly establish themselves in their national squads?
There’s no question about it that when you take quality players out of any league structure it’s going affect that league and teams are going to struggle. However, I do think these players do need to move down south – that’s where the programme is, and if they want to be included they have to put themselves out there and make the move. What I would like to see, are more of our youngsters up here given the opportunity to join the GB programme. At the moment the Scots who are selected for the GB programme are proven internationals who have been around for quite a long time, been to major competitions, performed well, been seen, and then invited to join the programme. However, if you look at some of the English players in there, they are youngsters who might have loads of potential – and I’m in no doubt that they deserve to be there – but they’re seen. Where is that scenario for our youngsters?
You captained your country in Europe indoors earlier this year at the EuroHockey Indoor Nations Championship II and also played in the EuroHockey Indoor Club Champions Trophy with Dundee Wanderers – getting bronze both times. Were you happy with the individual and overall team performances?
First of all I was delighted to captain my country. We were all pleased with the bronze medals, but equally disappointed to miss out on promotion at both club and country level – especially at club level where we lost out on promotion when Reading scored in the last minute of the game [it finished 1-1].
Does it bode well for the future of the indoor game here in Scotland? Well, I’d like to see our governing body, Scottish Hockey, put much more into our indoor game. At the moment it just seems to be an afterthought. The indoor game here in Scotland is a really good advert for our hockey. We’ve got good venues and having all the teams in the one place is a great opportunity to get fans involved. Indoor hockey is much faster and more entertaining for people to watch, and, from a player’s point of view, it’s a good game and a real benefit to you outdoors. I’m a firm believer that playing indoor improves your basics and your decision making in tight spaces under tight time limits. These things have a massive, positive impact on your outdoor game. I’m baffled that we don’t make more of the indoor game here in Scotland.
What was/is your favourite place to play?
Holland is such an amazing place to play hockey. It’s such a culture there – they love hockey, they live hockey! I remember being at one club, and when the Dutch women arrived the kids went absolutely mental with excitement. It’s make you slightly envious. It would be great if it was like that here. Holland is always pretty special.
Have you ever had a favourite player?
Well, there are your obvious big players like [Luciana] Aymar who are just amazing. But for me, I remember as a youngster, at my club Dundee Wanderers, growing up playing with people like Niall Stott [currently of East Grinstead] – and he was just brilliant to watch! The influence he had on a game through his skill and speed was so special, and I always wanted to be able to play like that, or at least bring as much of that into my own game as I could. Ex-Scotand internationalist Pauline Stott [no relation to Niall ] has always been a real inspiration to me as well – from not only the way she plays but the way she trains. And she’s such a great person – always so positive, encouraging and helpful.
What do you think are the challenges and opportunities for hockey in Scotland at the moment and beyond – especially in the run up to Glasgow 2014?
The difficulty we have here in Scotland – and I don’t suppose it’s a problem exclusive to our country – is that the international calendar is vast, and it’s almost got to the point where it’s really hard to run an international programme and domestic programme alongside each other. I don’t immediately know what the answer is, but it’s a discussion that needs to take place here in Scotland, and its a discussion that the clubs need to be involved in. The vast majority of people who play hockey in Scotland are not international players – they don’t want to spend all their weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, playing hockey, they want to play it at a recreational level.
And then there’s the end-of-season play-offs that have been introduced in the top men’s and women’s divisions last season and this season, and the way they’ve structured those leagues. It feels like Scottish hockey’s governing body don’t want the most consistent teams to go to Europe – it feels like they want the one-off games that puts pressure on players, which granted it does.
But that’s not the same kind of pressure that you experience in Europe. You don’t, for example, go into an indoor European competition having played everyone, having beaten everyone, and then that’s completely disregarded in the second-half of the process. But, that’s what we’re having to do here in Scotland.
And of course, at the end of the outdoor season in March, we have the play-offs, where the results of three or four play-off games will determine clubs’ final league positions, despite some of these clubs, for instance, having an overall good season and establishing enough points to finish in a very definite position in the league before the play-offs.
The play-offs are no doubt exciting for the fans and whoever else. But, are they an overall reflection of any given team’s season – good or bad – when you might for example go into the final weekend and the play-offs with a depleted or even decimated team, due to injuries?
For the future of our game there has to be far more proper sit-down discussion between our governing body and the clubs, on these and other matters.
What has been the biggest and most important rule change since you started playing?
Definitely the self-pass rule – that has been massive and has really improved the game, making it far better to play and watch.
What is your daily fitness regime and how do you fit it in to your day in your capacity as hockey coach and umpire at Dundee High School?
Well, alongside all the hockey training, I do a lot of running and I do my weights as well. My partner Iain is serious about his fitness too. So for instance, when we’re taking our son to school in the morning he’ll drive our son to school and I’ll run there, and that will include sprint work. After we’ve dropped him off, we’ll both head to Dundee High School, where we work, with me driving this time and him running. And, of course, I’m constantly on the go in my job through the hockey training I do with the kids at school and the games we play.
What are your main exercises in the weights room?
Pull-ups, chins, dips, step-ups, sumo deadlifts and bench presses – and I do a lot of core stuff as well.
Do you have a strict diet that you follow?
I simply keep to a balanced and healthy diet – very much protein based.
And finally: It’s a fact that many players, young and old alike, look up to you as a great role model here in Scotland – what would be the best advice you would give to youngsters just starting out in this game?
I always go back to when I first started playing hockey when I was a youngster and the reason I started playing. It always amazed me how fast the ball moved and what it takes to control the ball with your stick – and I always wanted to do that well from the first time I saw hockey and to learn as much as possible. Hockey is not an easy sport to play – you need perseverance, you need to stay motivated, you need to keep pushing yourself to get better and you need to keep learning. I always said I’d stop playing hockey the day I felt I’d stopped learning – and I’m still looking to learn to make myself better. So, I say give it a go, persevere, and of course have fun.
Born: February 12, 1983
Caps (Scotland/GB): 166/14
Major tournaments: Commonwealth Games (2006,2010), World Cup (2002), indoor World Cup (2007), Champions Challenge I (2011), World League (2012, 2013) EuroHockey Nations Championship (2013, 2009, 2005, 2003), EuroHockey Nations Trophy (2007, 2009), indoor EuroHockey Nations Championship (2008, 2010).