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Hockey Wales Men qualify for their first World Cup as the National Centre turns 50

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Celebrations for the 50th birthday of the Sport Wales National Centre started with a bang as Wales Hockey Men qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history at Sophia Gardens last weekend.

Wales clinched their seats on the plane to India for the 2023 World Cup with a semi-final shootout victory over neighbours Ireland on Saturday. The icing on the birthday cake was defeating France 2-1 in the final to win the whole tournament. 

It’s been a long time coming for Welsh Hockey who have had to wait 38 years since the women’s team last qualified for the World Cup in 1983.

Ria Burrage-Male amassed 33 senior caps for Wales Women and is now CEO at Hockey Wales. She praised the team and the organisation for their landmark achievement.

“Hockey Wales and the Men have been on an incredible journey over the last few years and achieving a place in the World Cup is testament to the efforts of all involved. 

“In 6 years, they have moved from 36th to 15th in the World Rankings and have now qualified for a World Cup, all with limited resources”

“We hope this elevates the Men and provides a platform for us to showcase the sport and inspire people to get involved in Hockey. As a player, coach, committee member, official or a fan.”

The feat was made even sweeter by clinching their spot in India 2023 in front of a sell-out home crowd at Sophia Gardens – and on the 50th birthday of the National Centre.

“Playing in front of a home crowd is magical; winning in front of a crowd is unexplainable.” Ria said.

“The Men have not played in front of a home crowd for some time. The warmth and voice of the crowd certainly lifted the players. There was a real buzz in the build-up and during the event. 

“When the shootout was taking place, it was unbelievably tense but the moment we secured the qualification, the whole place went electric”

Having worked at the Sport Wales National Centre for 44 of those 50 years, Assistant Operations Manager, Wayne Jenkins, can’t recall anything quite like it.

“There was an amazing atmosphere around the place. When Wales beat Ireland and qualified for the World Cup, the noise from the crowd was the loudest, I have ever heard in 44 years working the National Centre.”

A black and white image of teams playing hockey on the old pitch at the national centre
How the National Hockey Centre at Sophia Gardens used to look

The hockey pitch

Fifty years ago, the hockey pitch at the National Centre would be unrecognisable compared to the one that Wales Men played on when they qualified for their first ever World Cup.

Wayne recalled how it once looked: “The first hockey pitch we had was a stone, dust pitch. When it rained, it flooded up to the halfway line.” 

“The flags were made from metal poles sunk into concrete in old paint tins and then painted white. And the material used for the flags was cut from an old tablecloth which our linen department cut and sewed together. It was great team effort”

Since the women qualified back in 1983, not only does the pitch look different but so does the sport of hockey as a whole.

Ria said: “The equipment and the pitch is far more advanced which affects the speed and technical aspects of the game. Tactically the game is more astute. The contact time and opposition has increased and improved while our players are consistently playing a higher level of hockey. 

But some things are the same today as they were in 1983, but Ria is positive that will change in the future. 

“Unfortunately, as in 1983, our players today still contribute financially to their performance programme - a challenge we are working to resolve.

“We are extremely grateful to our former athletes and the path they have paved for our players of today. We are excited for our future, as our current players continue to inspire and enthuse.

“This for us is not about 2023, it is about changing the perception and profile of Hockey and ensuring that we are in the 2026 World Cup and the next and the next.”

An old photo of people socialising and drinking at the old National Centre bar
Anyone for a post-exercise beer? The National Centre used to have a bar and this is how it looked.

The National Centre

It’s not just the hockey pitch that’s had a facelift or two over the past 50 years. Sport at the National Centre in the 70’s and 80’s was unrecognisable to what it is now.

What’s a Watt Bike? A Fit-Bit? Equipment and technology were an obvious difference and the only thing your watch could tell you back then was the time. 

A trip in a time machine would shock you! And that wouldn’t just be down to the neon headbands and leg warmers on show.

There were no recovery drinks and protein shakes after an intense gym session at the Centre. Instead, you’d sneak up to the top floor of your local leisure centre for a swift pint, glass of wine and cigarette. In fact, you might skip the exercise part altogether. 

If your parents tell you they know best, maybe there was a time they didn’t.

“We would have people coming in to have a sunbed and then go for a drink with their friends.” Wayne said 

“I think it’s the biggest difference I’ve seen and something that is unthinkable now, but it was just the culture back then.”

The first set of data was published in 1986 and it threw up some very interesting insights, with comparisons being slightly difficult as being active 3 times a week is a modern trend. 

It showed that 54% of adults (aged 15+) in Wales participated in sport at least once in the previous four weeks. In 2020, 32% of adults (16+) participated in a sporting activity three times a week or more.

Perhaps not surprising to those with longer memories, indoor games (34% participated in the previous 4 weeks) formed a firm part of the nation’s sporting activity. Snooker, darts and billiards seeing a boom period in the era of Dennis Taylor, Steve Davis and Llanelli’s own World Champion Terry Griffiths.

Changing tastes and overseas influence are other huge factors on the sporting participation lists of today. Five decades ago, there is no sign of activities such as BMX biking, archery, rock climbing, skateboarding and kayaking, while all see significant participation.

So, here’s to the next 50 years of the Sport Wales National Centre and more Hockey World Cup appearances.

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