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It's a new ball game for European Cup hero Gary Longwell

By John Flack

The Ireland women's hockey squad have made a big new signing in the shape of towering former Ulster and Ireland rugby player Gary Longwell, who has joined the backroom team.

The 6ft 7in gentle giant - as he was known in his playing days - has been working alongside national coach Darren Smith at training sessions in Dublin.

Longwell, who was a member of Ulster's European Cup winning squad in 1999 and went on to earn 26 Ireland caps, is employed by the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland (SINI) as a Performance Skills Coach.

His part-time role with the Ireland team deals with the non-technical side of hockey and, as someone who has a Masters in Sports Psychology, he certainly knows what he is talking about.

It isn't his first venture into the sport as he has previously worked with Ulster High Performance manager Stephen Watt in the design and delivery of workshops to improve concentration for the province's Under-16 players.

Ireland captain Megan Frazer has warmly welcomed the decision to bring the 43-year-old on board and says he has had a positive influence on the squad.

"Gary is really good at what he does and he puts situations to us and we have to figure out answers as a team, which gets us thinking," explained the Ulster Elks player.

"Working with us, he is what you might call a lifestyle development coach and if, say, you're having problems with the likes of time management he will help out on a one-to-one basis.

"It's all part of a team-building exercise and Gary works alongside other members of the backroom staff like nutritionists and our strength and conditioning coaches."

Frazer is confident that Longwell's arrival on the scene will help Ireland in their bid to reach an Olympic Games for the first time.

Ireland begin the qualifying process when they host the World League 2 tournament in Dublin next month when they will be joined by seven lower-ranked teams.

For Frazer it will be her first opportunity to strive towards what would be the pinnacle of any sportswoman's career as she missed out on a place in the squad for the 2012 qualifiers in Belgium when Ireland surrendered tamely to the host team in the final.

"It was tailor-made for Belgium to win the tournament and our girls were maybe a bit overawed by the atmosphere in the final but we are a lot stronger mentally now," Frazer added.

"A good chunk of the current squad played in that game and learned from it and success breeds confidence, while Gary's influence has also helped the mental side of things.

"We had a successful 2014 and, as a squad, we rely on each other, trust each other and the people we work with."

In another less positive rugby-hockey development, Ireland have lost the services of two important players as Audrey O'Flynn and Lisa Jacob are now members of the Ireland sevens squad, who, ironically, are also hoping to be at Rio 2016.

The two former Hermes players have signed professional contracts with the IRFU - a financial incentive their former Irish hockey team-mates can only dream about at this stage.

In fact, members of all the national squads from U16 right up to senior level have to pay an annual levy of around £500 for the privilege of representing their country.

The financial side of things took another turn for the worse recently with confirmation that the IHA's sponsorship deal with Electric Ireland has run its course.

"Our focus at the moment has to be on World League 2 and to qualify for Rio would be an absolute dream for me and great for the sport across the island - and I am sure it would make hockey a much more attractive sport for potential sponsors," added Frazer.

"We want to drum up as much support as possible for the tournament in Dublin."

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