Eight years on from his EHL debut, Rhys Smith is looking to show his growing maturity on another big stage following a busy 2022 as he lines out for Wimbledon against Hamburger Polo Club this evening.
It follows a dramatic qualification for the London club on the final day of the English season. Going into the final two rounds, they were embroiled in a perfectly setup mini-league with Surbiton and eventual champions Old Georgians.
Wimbledon lost to Surbiton, leaving them requiring a victory on the final day against Georgians which they just about managed 3-2 to pin down a place in Europe.
It was a dramatic finale to the campaign with no playoff phase. Since then, the later start to the English season means they have just one league game under their belt this season but they showed up well in a 4-2 success against Hampstead & Westminster.
“We are just focusing on us right now,” Smith said of where his side are at. “Our season is only just starting so the focus has been on getting into a rhythm of how we want to play, how we want to defend.
“We have lost some quite significant players but the majority of the squad is the same with a few great additions. A lot of us have played junior age group stuff together and in the GB programme together. There’s good connections and understanding there, especially from last season.”
The EHL provides a great shop window to show that form in a tricky sector of the KO16 draw. He is in a Wimbledon side with plenty of know-how – along with Smith, David Condon and coach Karl Stagno were part of the EG setup in 2014.
Jack Waller was with Gantoise last term; James Bailey and Ben Tibble have been to the FINAL4 with the club but they will be without Ian Sloan with a facial injury.
On the personal front, it is Smith’s second EHL campaign, eight years since he had his debut weekend as a 17-year-old for East Grinstead in Barcelona.
In an interview with The Hockey Paper, he described his performances as being “out of depth” and “immature” in a bizarre ROUND1 group phase.
The English side pushed SV Kampong to the limit only to succumb to a last minute Constantijn Jonker goal in an incident laden fixture.
“We played the Russians [Dinamo Stroitel] on the first day and I remember I had a really good game and was buzzing afterwards,” Smith remembers. “The big game was Kampong to get through. It was a bit of a blur; I remember getting the green card, was very nervous and there was a lot of big stars in the game and the quality of the match was crazy.”
Two Mark Gleghorne goals had EG 2-1 up and looking good in the fourth quarter before floodlight failure left them in the gloom.
“We were all over them and then the lights went off. We were up, had a big break and then the momentum just shifted. It was all them and they came back and sealed the deal to get through to the next round. I still believe if the lights hadn’t gone off and we would have gone through.”
As such, it was an unsatisfactory debut on the highest stage he had encountered at that stage in his fledgling career.
Eight years on, he has a second chance to make his mark in the elite club competition hot on the heels of a 14 appearances in the Pro League and a debut senior tournament, taking Commonwealth Games bronze.
He is reticent to call it a breakthrough year but does say it has stoked the fires to push on and become a permanent fixture on the international stage.
“Initially, I wasn’t selected for the Commonwealth Games so there is the lingering in the back of my mind that I don’t have a solid spot in the team.
“That’s why it doesn’t feel like a break-out year but I am very happy with the year and I want to continue in the same direction. I want to keep building my confidence at that level, keep getting game time.
“Especially like the Commonwealth Games, that was my first senior tournament and the experience of playing semi-finals and medal matches, understanding top level hockey even more, you definitely get that feeling.
“With the World Cup coming soon, it will be a big priority and something I would love to attend because I was reserve for one as well! I don’t want that to happen again.”
Whatever happens on that front, he knows this weekend’s EHL will be a special event for his club.
“Whenever the EHL is mentioned around Wimbledon, it is always spoken about how much it means to the club and the supporters, going to Europe, competing and doing well. It comes through how proud the club is for those who have been in the club for many years.”