European Championships Preview

England are heading for the Euros with a double gold target firmly in their sights. The blood, sweat and tears of training camps and heartbreak selection is almost over with both men’s and women’s teams now focused on triumph.

The men are looking to retain the title they gained in Finland in 2008 while the women will be aiming to prize the trophy from Wales’ grip.   But they face a tough battle from Europe’s best who will guarantee them a rough ride in Amsterdam.  Danny Buckland caught up with head coaches Matt Bagley and Sarah Butt as lacrosse counts down to the showpiece event, which starts on June 20.   Head Coach Matt Bagley exudes confidence and passion but, behind the ready smile and breezy chat, he is a man who leaves nothing to chance.

The former England middie has to deal with leaving the camaraderie of the players’ locker room for the coach’s sometimes lonely seat. “Transitioning from a player to a Head Coach has definitely had its fair share of challenges,” said the former Walcountian Blues star.

“As a player, you are focused on what your role is within the team, and how best to accomplish it. In other words, you are a small cog that is part of a bigger machine.  But a Head Coach needs to step back and see the machine as a whole, and make sure that all of the smaller parts are working in perfect order.

“However, the players have been wonderful in supporting this transition, and have been amazingly positive and helpful since day one.” That journey has taken the squad from initial selection, demanding physical profiling, grueling gym work-outs and detailed technical skills sessions.  Players have had to sacrifice social lives and compromise their bank balances to make the grade. “The players have sacrificed a lot to be a part of this squad, both financially and physically. As with any major international tournament, this will cost our players quite a lot, although we have been fundraising and asking for sponsorships since early last year,” said Coach Bagley.

“Preparations have been going very well with the team training about twice a month since January “The coaches have definitely pushed the players to the breaking point on many occasions this spring in training. This was done to increase mental toughness and to give them a taste of the beating that their bodies will take in June. A byproduct of that has been a real sense of team camaraderie and togetherness which will definitely come into play at some point during this tournament.”   England had it relatively easy until the semis at the 2008 tournament but the coaching team is anticipating massive improvements from all countries.

England starts off against Ireland on June 21 and follow that with Finland, Sweden, Germany and 2008 finalists Netherlands in the group stage. “They have definitely gotten better! I think that their progress comes from a combination of experience, confidence and an increased skill level. We even saw an improvement in the German national team from the first time we played them in the 2010 World Games after the opening ceremony, to the final game for fifth and sixth place.

The home grown talent in these countries has risen greatly in the past two years,” said Bagley. “We need to respect all our opponents and play our hardest each time we step onto the pitch. “We hope we can repeat our success and there is excitement in the England set-up for the tournament. “It is an absolute honour to be selected to represent one’s country, and this feeling is shared by all of the players, coaches and management alike. We just cannot wait to compete at the Euros.”

England women’s head coach Sarah Butt has a similar professional approach to bringing her team to peak performance and avenge the 3-11 defeat to Wales in the 2008 Final.  Her team has been drawn in a group with Ireland – their first game on June 23 – Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. “Our chances are good as we recently won both the A and B Home International tournaments,” said Sarah, who has represented England at five World Cups during an 18-year international career with more than 100 caps.  “Countries are improving all the time and it will be interesting to see how all the countries have developed since the last World Cup in Prague.

“The strongest threats in our section will be Germany and Ireland though you need to give every team credit.”  England go to Amsterdam on a high after the Home International triumph and a successful US tour which gave them six days of matches to replicate the intensity of a full scale international tournament  “The squad benefited from not only the experience of playing against the US team (many for the first time) but also from playing against the top NCAA teams; Maryland, Northwestern, Syracuse and the University of Florida,” added Butt. “Consistency in performance is important during a Tournament and playing day after day is a challenge, both physically and mentally for all teams.

“England will be without a few of their players from the Home International side due to injury, illness and work commitments but this has given us the opportunity to involve more players.”   Butt and her coaching team have had five full weekend squad sessions and have been working on goal setting and video analysis.

They have also had fitness and conditioning sessions with high profile trainer Charlotte Ord. “There are always sacrifices to be made but competing for England is an honour and all the players are excited to be a part of it,” said Butt. “There are some young new caps who will no doubt be apprehensive but we have every confidence in the squad’s ability to perform to their potential in Amsterdam.”

Danny Buckland