We had 3 questions for both our national coaches at the start of the play off today.
What surprised you last season?
Niels Thijssen: Although some teams came close to Braxgata last year, it was not a big surprise that they won last year's title. They had a well balanced group, a mix of internationals, youth internationals, strong club players and in Bonastre an experienced and quality Spanish striker. Having a good group of players of course doesn't make you win the title, you need to play first, and play well. Over a full year, Braxgata simply deserved that title last year if you ask me.
Shane McLeod: For me the interesting aspect of the season is watching teams coming into form at different times of the season. Whilst Watducks has been the most consistent team they too have had a couple of patches where they have been challenged by other teams. EHL had a very positive impact on teams like Herackles and Racing which they then carried back into the Belgium competition. Whilst the top four became clear with two rounds to go there were teams like Braxgata that performed extremely well in the second half of the season and would have been a real contender if they had been more consistent in the first half. Gantoise has also been a team that has played some effective hockey. They were in the running for playoffs for a very long time. Great performance for a new team in the division and one to watch next season.
What is the impact of a strong competition on your national teams?
Niels Thijssen: Having a strong domestic league and the impact on our national teams is an interesting topic. As a national program your benchmark is the top of international hockey. So you try to build a program which improves players in that direction. Our women's program has the desire to climb world ranking, to do so, we not only need to close the gap, we in the end need to consistently be better than the teams above us. That means increased gym programs, technical and tactical ability, mental toughness, an "international drag flick" and so on. And to create that, sometimes club and national programs clash. Without training hard and becoming tired, we won't get there. However, the foundation of recent and future succes of the national programs, is in my believe our club structure. And although it sometimes seems to clash, I value it highly. It's where our future Panthers start, it's where they hit their first ball, where they learn important values around improving, winning, losing, being a team member. The stronger that domestic league becomes, the better the role models are in our Honour Division teams, the faster players develop in the direction we internationally need. From a good discussion now and then we all get stronger, but the national programs need a strong domestic league, and a strong national program improves the level of that same league. Hand in hand.
Shane McLeod: One of the reasons Belgium has moved to the top of international hockey is due to the excellent work at the be gold level and having an excellent domestic competition. We see the standard of the overall competition improving each season. This has a positive role in players readiness for the international level.
What do you expect with regards to this years finals?
Niels Thijssen: It's exciting to see how fast the women's league develops. If I look back at my first years in Belgium coaching in the womens league, and compare the level back then with today, it's a different world. And only in 6 years time. This year's finals are going to be tight. We have 4 teams in the play-offs, who all could win the title. Where Braxgata, based on a strong youth school, still has that great mix of players, just like last year. Their youth internationals developed fast, and you can see that back on the pitch, they showed some good hockey this year. With Gantoise and Antwerp I believe we have two teams who next to "just" being a strong team, also have a few players with the capacity to bring something extra, who have the speed and technical capacity to create a chance out of nothing. And then Watducks, who became stronger and stronger as the league went on. A structured team, a good mix of talent and experience, and growing towards their best level on the right moment. They can all beat each other, I'm not burning my hands on a prediction this year, good luck to all players and staff!
Shane McLeod: For me the key to the final is two things. Firstly the team that is able to handle the pressure of the playoff system whilst still being able to be creative and daring to play. The second is having key players making the difference. If the best players from each club step up we will see some excellent hockey. The match ups of racing v dragons should be a battle of the national player. Arther, Alex Hendrix, Felix, Victor and Flo will be looking to have the most for Dragons, whilst Gus, Tom and Cedric will need to be well supported by the talent young racing players.
Watducks vs Leo is also an interesting match. Watducks will go into the game as favourites but will need player John-John, Simon and Gauthier making sure that they get the very best out of the Watducks strikers. Leo will for sure have their work made even more difficult if Vincent is playing to the form that we know that he can play. But for Leo they have nothing to lose. With a new coaching staff they have succeeded in making the playoffs die to some good performances from Zimmer and Dorian. They will need to be at their best to challenge the team from Waterloo.