Can Welsh hockey rise to the challenge at international level?

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BBC Wales Sport looks at why 2017 could be a defining year for Welsh hockey

With a post-Rio Olympics boost in players, unprecedented progress at international level and a European tournament in Cardiff, here's why 2017 will be a crucial year for hockey in Wales.

One of the most memorable moments of a very memorable summer in Rio came when Hollie Webb's winning penalty securing Great Britain a first Olympic hockey gold medal since 1988.

And there's no doubting the impact it had on Wales' number one goalkeeper, Rose Thomas.

"It was just incredible. I mean, stopping the news on BBC One, for hockey, that's just the goal," Thomas said.

"You know you want it - and then you see them on the podium with a gold medal and you just think 'I don't think I've ever wanted anything more in my life'," she told BBC Wales Sport.

Rose Thomas
Rose Thomas began playing at Newport and now plays for Wimbledon Ladies

"You want to be there as well, sharing those moments, having that success."

That was probably the feeling across the whole of Welsh hockey that night as not one male or female player from Wales had actually made the final GB squads.

But that could change at Tokyo 2020 as Thomas is one of three Welsh players - Thomas, Sarah Jones and the men's team's Dan Kyriakides - to have been called up to the GB centralised programme this year.

Sarah Jones
Sarah Jones is a former Cardiff club player, who now plays for Holcombe

They'll be the first Welsh representatives in the GB setup since 2012 bronze medallist Sarah Thomas retired four years ago.

"It's fantastic," said Sarah Thomas. "You always hope there would be more Welsh internationals involved in GB Hockey to have the experiences I had.

"It'll give confidence to the other Welsh players and they'll think 'maybe I can get there too'."

Climbing the rankings

On paper, hockey in Wales has a long road ahead of it. Its women are ranked 32nd in the world - just behind Thailand - while the men lie behind Trinidad and Tobago in 34th.

But those numbers don't tell the real story of the progress made in the last 12 months.

For the first time, Wales's men and women have made it through to the second round of the World League, a vital qualifier on the road to World Cup qualification.

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Wales goalkeeper Rose Thomas says she's wanted to play for Great Britain since she was 13

The women's tournament starts in Malaysia on Saturday, before the men head to Ireland in March. Both sides know good results could take them to the Commonwealth Games or even a World Cup.

"That would be incredible," says women's head coach Kevin Johnson.

"World Cup qualification for a country the size of ours would be an unbelievable achievement, but not insurmountable.

"There's a desire and a motivation to be better here. I'm looking forward to seeing how far we can take this team."

A home tournament

A key stop on the women's journey will be this summer's European Championships as it offers a rare chance to play at home.

Cardiff is the host of the 2017 'B Division' Championships. If Wales make the final, they'd move up to international hockey's top table alongside England, Germany and Australia.

The Wales men squad head to Glasgow for their European Championship and have the same end goal.

Dan Kyriakides
Dan Kyriakides began playing hockey for the Swansea City club

"We haven't been in a place as good as this for a long, long time," explains men's head coach, Zak Jones, former Wales international.

"We've got a proper strength and conditioning programme, more support behind the scenes. Even though the players aren't professional, we're definitely bridging that gap."

The Rio Legacy

Wales may not have had any players on the pitch in Rio, but don't think there hasn't been an impact on pitches back home.

At Cardiff & Met - one of Wales's top club sides - membership is up 45%. At Gwent Hockey Club in Cwmbran they've had new goalkeepers join after watching Maddie Hinch's heroics in Brazil.

But one of the challenges is making sure the facilities match the demand.

"Hockey can't be played at a competitive level on 3G pitches so we've actually had to save a couple of Astroturf pitches," says Hockey Wales head of game growth, Debra Barker.

"We're investing more into our clubs, but there's still work to do.

"There are pockets where it's really strong and pockets in more rural areas where there are still issues with pitches."

How far can Wales go?

Inside Hockey Wales, they want to take Wales to the top table. But the final word has to go to the nation's last Olympic hockey player.

"It's always going to be difficult," said Thomas. "We never have an enormous amount of players or funding.

Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas retired after the 2012 London Olympics

"But what we do have an abundance of is passion and determination.

"With the girls starting the world league tournament in Malaysia this weekend, you'll see the determination and that element is really hard to teach.

"So if we can do that and then build on our tactics and our fitness, I think we could become a really formidable team in the world."

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