Ireland 2 Scotland 3 (27-25, 15-25, 17-25, 25-23, 6-15)
The theme for this first trip was about 37 hours. This is the amount of time that the SWNTP has practiced since the new programme began in March of this year. It equates to 20% of the time we will spend preparing to compete in the Small Countries Division qualifier in 2012. 37 hours doesn’t seem a lot in terms of actual time but the players had to understand it was the quality of the work that had gone into these 37 hours that was important and would allow us to perform over the weekend.
We had our first practice session on Friday afternoon at the ALSAA centre. The quality of the session was conditioned by the early morning (05.30) start and it wasn’t good, but the second session saw the girls come out firing on all cylinders and the next hour and a half was alight with sharpness, speed and power.
The plan for Saturday was to practice, then play scrimmage sets to take full advantage of the match play opportunities. Aer Lingus VC, the reigning Irish Women’s Champions, were invited to play both Ireland and ourselves. The Scottish players continued to demonstrate focus of attention and energy in the practice session, then there was an opportunity to have a look at the Irish squad who practiced after us. First impressions were that they were taller, to a degree, but an older squad than ours. We knew they hadn’t had much opportunity to play together but then again neither had we.
The positive thing about the two ‘scrimmage matches’ was that it would allow us to give all thirteen players an opportunity to play. Unfortunately, we had lost Cathy Smy (Aberdonia) to an ankle injury just before leaving for Ireland which reduced our middle options and put a lot onto the shoulders of Caroline Clayton (Troon) and Emily Smith (Jets). The plan was to play two sets against the Irish Champions, for Ireland to do the same and then Ireland and Scotland to play a further two sets against each other. We were first up against Aer Lingus.
Dave McEwan took charge on the coaching front for the afternoon and we mixed up the teams to make sure that we were not overplaying anyone. The Aer Lingus sets were a shock – we lost them both! Admittedly they were close but we lost them. Aer Lingus have been reigning Champions for many years and they have been together for all that time. No-one can really compete with them in Ireland. The positive is that we did but the negative was that we had lost to a club team.
The mood after wasn’t good. This wasn’t meant to happen. We have this great master plan which says that everything will work in our favour if we put in the work. Remember, we have already put in 37 hours of quality time so why didn’t we win?
Ireland played Aer Lingus next and lost the first set by a fair margin. However, they bounced back in set two (which was cut to 15 points) and were all geared up for the ‘real’ match-up against us. This was going to be our first real test of character. Had our new Programme begun to have an impact in developing an ability to compete under pressure? The answer was a clear ‘Yes’! Hall let time restricted us to playing only one set but we came out victors by 5 points and the mood changed considerably. The first real test had been passed and the next big one was looming on the horizon.
Sunday turned out to be a very nice Autumn morning as we met together for our final briefing before heading to the match hall at UCD. We had come to Ireland to measure progress in three areas: passing structure and sideout efficiency, serving impact and defensive structure. That had to be the players’ focus and nothing else. We knew that if we concentrated on these three areas then the outcome would take care of itself. The 37 hours were also significant for we had to believe that we had done enough to have the confidence to know that we could come out on top in a closely contested five set match.
With a good crowd behind them Ireland scored the first two points but back we came with more control and soon it was all square. We hit the first technical time out with our noses in front. Again, this was significant because we had spoken about dealing with each set in three blocks – from 0 to the first technical time out, from 8 to the second technical time out and from 16 to the end of the set. By the time block two was complete we were still ahead but instead of playing a sideout game from there on in we made too many mistakes and allowed the Irish back in, and to overtake us. We were always trying to edge back and didn’t quite make as the hosts clinched the opening set 27-25.
Here was test number 2! How would we respond? Answer…with great effect!
We controlled the set from the very beginning and dealt with each of the three sections as we had always planned. The passing unit was showing great consistency with a permutation from Laura McReady (Su Ragazzi), Hazel Gow (Troon), Kirsty McLean (Su Ragazzi) and Caitlin McEwan (NLVC) giving setter Elaine Krawczyk (Troon) the quality of ball that enabled her to run the offence with effect. Captain, Linsey Bunten (Troon) was always a threat that the Irish side found hard to stop and Caroline Clayton and Emily Smith punctured the Ireland defence on several occasions. The gap widened and the players grew in confidence but the most pleasing thing is that they never swayed from the plan. Defensively we were light years ahead of where we had been the day before and it was no surprise that we took the set 25-15.
Set three went exactly the same way and the Scotland players were demonstrating the level of consistent performance that we had hoped for. Even the introduction of new caps Emma Clarkson (Su Ragazzi), Sophie Hunter (City of Edinburgh) and Fiona Kennie (City of Edinburgh) didn’t change the flow. A 25-17 set win put us in the ascendency. Could we finish it off?
No, was the answer! For the first time in the match our serving, which had been causing problems for Ireland all game, deserted us. We made several serving errors in succession and allowed Ireland to build a lead. Our passing went down and in no time at all we were under the cosh. The introduction of Jill Runciman (Jets) added a bit of hitting weight and helped spark a bit of a resurgence but it was too late. From being in control of the match we were back to level pegging.
Now came the biggest test of character for the players and the Programme so far. In previous matches, the unfortunate outcome would have been for the Scotland team to keep neck and neck with their opponents, until the last five points of the deciding set, and then they would crumble. In this instance there was never any possibility that this was going to happen as the players stepped up yet again and turned round 8-3 up. They never looked back and with serving, passing and defence all showing real quality the set was won 15-6 and sparked off celebrations on the court.
The significance of this result for the continued development of the programme should not be underestimated. We now have a group of players who can demonstrate a level of technical ability and game understanding that I certainly haven’t seen for a long time, and the bonus is that this is a young squad, that is nowhere near it’s performance ceiling.
The whole weekend was a resounding success, and on behalf of the SVA I would like to record our gratitude to the Volleyball Association of Ireland for hosting us, and in particular to Liz Barry who helped plan the weekend, and Jane Mouzet who acted as our Liaison throughout the three days.
From a personal point of view I would like to thank Susan McRorie (Physio) and Tom Smale (S+C Coach) for the power of work that they put in over the weekend. Dave McEwan was a great support to me throughout while juggling his role as Assistant Coach with the duties of the Team Manager. I am also indebted to Gail Wilson for all of the work she did in preparation for the trip.
Above all I want to thank and commend the players for the way in which they went about the weekend. We have been striving to create the correct performance environment and they went a long way to cementing this in Ireland. They have embraced the Programme and with this result have moved us on to the next level.
So the First Term Report Card reads, “Making good progress and ready for the next challenge on the journey!”
Senior Women’s National Team Programme
17 October 2011