Mark Hager, the Australian coach of the GB women’s team, could easily have been living in solitude during the coronavirus pandemic, with no family, cats or dogs for company in the small Berkshire village where he is currently renting.
Luckily, scheduled plans meant that his wife, Michelle, a double Olympian with the Hockeyroos, travelled back to the UK with Hager following GB’s Pro League tour to Australia and New Zealand from the family home in Auckland. “I jokingly said to my daughters ‘your mum’s coming home next week.’ They said ‘no she’s not, there’s no room for her now!’
The couple have since been able to learn more about the countryside around them near hockey’s Bisham headquarters. On one recent daily walk, the animal-loving Hagers missed the birth of two lambs by 30 minutes at a near-by veterinary school. “Most of the time when you are touring and work has you ingrained you miss what’s around you,” says Hager, 55.
Currently, that also includes the team he has coached for just over a year. “You don’t realise how much you miss the group and team environment once it’s taken away from you,” he admits.
“It’s a scenario no one predicted. For us, we looked at the programme and we looked at it as an opportunity to have a break. We took the foot off the accelarator and to be with family or friends.”
Only when the pandemic has hopefully abated in the coming weeks or months will decisions be taken. “You have some experienced players who have been around a long time and it’s how we manage the workloads,” adds Hager, who confesses he doesn’t exercise as much as he should. “I feel strongly that we need to have a block of time where players can go on holiday with their family and friends and where that fits in the programme is quite important.”
Sporting battles cast aside for now, it has meant that Hager has been forced to shelve thoughts of how GB would fare against the Dutch at the end of the month. “In one way, we felt we were getting momentum even after four games [of the 2020 Pro League]. We were all looking forward to playing the Dutch, to challenge ourselves and see where we were at and how we would manage in the rest of the Pro League.”
There is no certainty as to whether the 2020 Pro League will be concluded, or even if the 2021 Pro League will take place. That would mean coaches casting around opposition numbers to organise various three or four nation tournaments. It would also throw up several conundrums as to player availability with clubs, on top of the problem that many GB centralised players have already signed deals with continental clubs (before Tokyo 2020 was delayed).
Hager has yet to sign a contract extension to take up to next year’s rescheduled Games, but that is surely a deal which will be ironed out soon with Bisham hierarchy. “It’s a job half done,” says Hager of his Olympic commitment. “There have been no discussions as yet to the contract extension. At this stage everyone is relaxing before putting those things in place.”
And if lockdown does continue for the foreseeable? “Well, we enjoy the company of animals so we have looked online for assistance of walking dogs so we would be open for that.”
A national league player who scores more than double her nearest challenger in the Investec Premier Division is always a lively topic of discussion for an international call up. That it is a former GB player, Sophie Bray, makes the issue a touch complex.
Hager was present at East Grinstead’s final home game, the 6-1 drubbing of Surbiton, where Bray scored another two goals as she finished league top scorer, with 24.
Hager admitted that currently he hasn’t thought past the next month but didn’t completely rule out looking at other players. Whether that includes another phone call with Bray is yet to be determined.
“It may be, like anything, we will have discussions with the current group. They have made really good gains in the last six months in particular,” said Hager. “Like all coaches, we will be looking everywhere for the next potential players or those around who could assist the team moving forward. But I haven’t looked past getting back on track at this stage.”
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