By Lucas Ball
Nick Bandurak has enjoyed a sensational start to life as an England international and now has his sights set on the World Cup in the new year after he top-scored in his first senior international tournament over the summer, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Bandurak netted 11 times in front of a home crowd as England took bronze from the tournament, while new Holcombe teammate Phil Roper finished joint-fourth in the scoring charts.
“It was the best, it was so much fun. It was quite a unique experience and something that flowed organically through the games – before you knew it, you were in the mix.
“I was fortunate enough that I was in the right place at the right time for a few of the goals and thankfully it clicked at the right time going into the tournament for me.
“It was an unbelievable experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Now that’s done, it’s a case of parking it and seeing what the next one brings as and when that may be. It’s all well and good doing it there, but can I do it again and then at the next one and the next one?
“It was a good start with regards to International tournaments and it’s something I loved being a part of but it’s very much in the past now and the focus is on what the next one may bring.
“It can’t not be right now [on looking ahead to the 2023 World Cup]. It’s difficult to not think about it with regards to the group announcements and fixture announcements this week. It’s something that’s lurking in the back of your mind but the thing that’s served me well through the whole process from trials to first cap to the summer was just taking it bit by bit and stage by stage.
“Although it feels close, it’s still a way away and we’ve got a lot of stuff to do between now and then. We’ll take it step by step and if I end up there, it’ll be the same process as Birmingham.”
England and Wales have also launched a joint-bid to host the 2026 Men’s World Cup, with the semi-finals and final to be hosted at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium were the bid to be successful.
“It would be unbelievable. We were very lucky to be taken around Tottenham last week for a bit of a tour and a bit of an insight into how it would all work for the semi-finals and final stage. While that is the very latter stages of the tournament, it gave an insight into the level that England Hockey and Wales Hockey are going for.
“It’s something that is incomparable to anything else within this level at the sport. If we are able to pull it off and succeed with the bid, it’s going to be an unbelievable event and something that every hockey player in the country will be buzzing about, male or female.
“It’ll be an unbelievable opportunity to witness the best players in the world in some of the best environments available to the sport with some of the stadiums we’re going to be playing in. There’s no doubt it’s an exciting time and it’s something that may fall within the window of being able to be a part of.”
Focusing on club hockey for now, Bandurak has a ream of new responsibilities heading into the new season having been made captain of the men’s 1s and appointed as head coach of the women’s 1s at Holcombe Park. This isn’t something he is daunted by, though, with his excitement clear to see surrounding what both teams can potentially achieve.
“It’s been really fun, busy obviously with a lot more going on and a lot more to consider and be on top of but it’s been really enjoyable. I would’t have taken the opportunity unless I thought it would be and thankfully we’ve got a great group on both sides so it makes my involvement even more enjoyable from that perspective. It’s been good fun.
“I guess just the responsibility that comes with leading the club. I’ve been really fortunate to play under some amazing captains in the Premier Division for the last 15 years so it’s an opportunity for me to see what my own style would be and inevitably it’s going to be based on taking the best bits that I saw personally from some of those guys in years gone by.
“It’s just about being that focal point which is something that I’m really looking forward to, being able to cultivate into my own format.”
Holcombe’s men have been billed as potential title-challengers this season with a raft of other teams in what appears to be an open Premier Division.
The summer additions of Roper, Sam Taylor and Rhodri Furlong, along with David Ames’ return as assistant coach have been key to those discussions, with Barry Middleton’s reputation preceding him in talks with new players, in Bandurak’s opinion.
“One of the biggest changes is the style of play. We’re playing a different structure and there’s different emphasis on the way we go forward and different focus points in how we do that, which has been really interesting to see come together.
“He’s added a fair bit of firepower with Phil Roper coming in which has contributed massively to that and the style of play, which is brilliant.
“It’s very much a different set-up and a different style going forward which nearly got us the three points at the weekend. It’ll be interesting now to see how we manage that from week one to week two and beyond into the season.
“If you’ve got someone like Barry at the helm, you’ll have people from all over the world wanting to come and play and we do have people from all over the world wanting to come. He’s someone that has been at the very top of the game for as long as anyone.
“His reputation goes way beyond Rochester and the south east so we’re very fortunate to have that attraction of people wanting to come to play under him and it just provides a really attractive outlook to people who want to come and get better and to progress their game because Barry’s one of the best around at being able to do that. We’re very fortunate to have him and hopefully we can capitalise on that with some good results.
“I’ve been very fortunate to know Phil since I was very young playing against each other at the old regional schools tournaments so to come through together has been brilliant. To finally get the shout over the summer with him is something I was really looking forward to and it was nice on a personal level for us both to have the tournaments that we had and the impact that we did.
“To be able to do that week in, week out now both at Bisham and then at the weekend is all you can ask for, really. I love playing with him, I love his style of play and personally think we link-up with each other really nicely in that attacking third so it’ll be exciting to see how that develops through the year as well.
“Obviously, playing at Holcombe is a different style to how we play with England so finding that balance may take a little bit of time – I don’t think it’ll be a great deal at all but that’s something we need to stay on top of. It’s going to be an exciting season and something I’m really looking forward to.”
Facing a strong side in Surbiton on the opening weekend provided a stern test for Middleton’s men, one that will be similar to the threat posed by Hampstead & Westminster this weekend under the lights at Holcombe Park.
This weekend’s visitors opened their campaign with a 4-2 defeat against Wimbledon but remain dangerous opponents.
“I’d be lying if I said I was happy with it, I felt like we should have got the three points if we were a bit more clinical in front of goal. I feel like that was potentially two points dropped on our end but it’s not the worst result in the world – Surbiton will be taking points off of everybody regardless of whether you were top four last year or not.
“If we go purely off the back of last year’s league table, it’s not the worst start but there’s no doubt that we’ve got our sights set higher than they were last year with the group that we’ve put together. It’ll just be interesting now how we roll from week one to week two – we’ve had a lot of injuries this week, a lot of people missing from training on Tuesday so hopefully we can manage those ok and get back to as close to full-strength as we can for this weekend.
“Another really tough one, we always seem to have some really good games
against Hampstead – it’s always played in the right way, it’s tough, it’s physical. They’re a great group of lads and a high-quality team.
“Simon Letchford coming in has done a great job at getting them ready to go. I expect it to be a close game, definitely and a tough one. We had a 4-3 thriller last year in this fixture and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re not far off that again. I think both teams have threats going forward, both teams are very solid at the back with great goalkeepers and backlines and both play some good, exciting hockey. I think we’re going to be in for a tough one but it should make for exciting watching.”
Bandurak is also expecting a tough encounter for his Vitality Women’s Premier Division side, with a number of internationals in the Hampstead & Westminster side coached by Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh. He does, however, expect his team to relish playing their first league game of the season at Holcombe Park after defeat on the road against Clifon Robinsons in the opener.
“It was frustrating to come away with nothing from a game that we targeted as an opportunity to hit the ground running so we can’t sugar-coat or shy away from that. We’d be naïve if we thought we could put together a new coaching team and a completely new squad with about 12 new signings and just expect it to click from game one.
“We’re very aware that this is a process and anyone that thinks it’s a quick fix or instant solution is just a little bit naïve. The positive from our side of things is that ultimately the game came down to two moments and it was a crash-ball where they managed to get in front of a defender and a back-post deflection after a bit of a melee in the circle.
“By and large, we protected Miriam in goal pretty well – she made one fantastic save but everything else was pretty comfortable for her. Our defence is going to be a massive contributor to any success that we have this year so that was a positive.
“We created chances and just didn’t convert them. If we weren’t creating chances, it would be a bit of a concern but to get the ball into the areas we did and create some of the opportunities we did was a real positive. On another day they go in and we’re sitting here having a different conversation.
“I’m not overly concerned with the scoreline but the process of learning to play under pressure and when we’re playing for points will be fantastic for us because now a number of the girls have got Holcombe debuts and Premier Division out of the way we can get back to business and focus on the important things.
“The girls are buzzing [to play their first league game of the season at Holcombe Park]. The whole group has integrated really well within the squad and the club as a whole so the chance to play in front of everyone is going to be brilliant for them. It’s obviously going to be a tough one, that goes without saying, but you wouldn’t really want it any other way on a Saturday night. The girls are all buzzing for it and we can’t wait to see how it goes.
“A very tough test. They have a fantastic squad, fantastic coaching team and for our girls it’s ultimately going to be a chance to test themselves against the best.
“It was a wake-up call with regards to the intensity of the Premier Division last week and that there are no easy points throughout the year, against any team. Now it’s a case of how quickly we can adapt to that intensity against one of the dominant teams in the league. They’ve got a lot of individual quality and made a couple of really exciting signings with the internationals coming in.
“From our perspective, we’ve got to make sure we’re switched on and diligent. If we have a lapse at any moment during the 70 minutes, we’ll be punished – they showed that against Buckingham last week and that even if you’re not having lapses, they will still probably punish you. We need to make sure we’re really switched on and sticking to what we believe gives us an opportunity.
“If we can put that into action then I’ve got every faith in the girls that we can put a really strong performance together. There’s no hiding away from the fact that it’ll be a really tough game and if we want anything out of it, we’ll have to be at our best.”
One of those numerous signings is Sofia Viarengo, who returns to the club following a successful spell on the contient. Viarengo’s previous time at Holcombe saw them finish top of the Premier Division table in the regular season, before reaching the final of the EuroHockey Club Trophy at Holcombe Park.
“I got on really well with Sofia when she was here before and we’ve obviously been watching her progress from afar. She had an unbelievable season top-scoring out in Germany last year and inevitably that’s going to be a focus point for me, we’re going to need to score goals and need people who are ruthless in front of goal.
“I’ve really enjoyed having the chance to work with Sofia so far – but obviously it’s still very early days and going to be a bit of a transition back into the Premier Division so to speak, certainly because she’s grown as a player and person since she was here before. I have no doubt that she will absolutely smash the league this year and I’ve been looking forward to working with her for a while now so just chuffed we could get it done and get her back over.”
Bandurak will be heavily involved in two teams navigating their way through the new Premier Division structure for the first time, which includes the return of play-off weekends, though these will be hosted by clubs in 2023 rather than at Lee Valley. Bandurak is excited by the structural changes and the potential for big hockey weekends again following the success of the Y1
Champs over the summer, a tournament in which he scored the winning goal in the powerplay, a new rule which counted any goal as two during a chosen five-minute period.
“I’m all for the structure changes. It was really refreshing when we had a meeting months ago at Bisham Abbey when it was first proposed as an idea and the general reception was really positive.
“Ultimately, what everyone wants is some good competitive hockey and the chance to give something back to the clubs as well. It’s been pretty unanimously agreed that the Lee Valley weekends just don’t do what they could do for the sport and we have an opportunity to give back to the clubs, get some big crowds in and engage directly with the people who play and participate in the sport far better than we have done as a governing body moving forward.
“The chance to go back to clubs is going to be massive and it keeps things exciting all the way through – even if you just miss out on the top-six at Christmas, you still have everything to play for with two play-off spots to play for and anything can happen in a one-off play-off game.
“It adds an extra level of excitement and you still get the reward for performing well during the regular season, as well as during those play-offs. I think it ticks all the boxes and keeps everything exciting all the way through the year.
“The Y1 boys did a brilliant job with that. It was an opportunity to grow what they did that first year out of covid and just take it to a bigger and better level. That was something we were always keen to support, it was a great prospect before and we got the sense that this was going to be even bigger which it turned out to be.
“They’ve done a fantastic job in getting it to the level that it was and it was the perfect opportunity to get the group back together relatively early in pre-season and just play hockey – you can’t really get much better than that playing against quality opposition, getting loads of games under the belt and the progress you can make in just two days is crazy compared to if you were just training. A great opportunity to play and it was brilliant to be a part of.
“I’m obviously going to turn round and say it’s the best rule ever because it won us £2,500 but it was an interesting one, it was unique. We’ve got to try to push things forward – there was a period where the EHL [Euro Hockey League] actually last time we were in there with the men jumped it up to two goals for a field goal and that just turned into carnage.
“Everyone agreed it needed to go so it did but it was an opportunity to try it and see how it went. This was something new that no one had really ever done or trialled before so it added a new dimension.
“While we were aware of it on the pitch, there wasn’t a massive change in conscious effort or thought of ‘we’ve got to score right now in these five minutes’. It was something we were aware of and tried to position accordingly as to how we thought the game might go. It was obviously something that benefited us and just added a new dimension to that final.
“Once we went into those final five minutes, you were guaranteed there would be a winner one way or another so it added an extra bit of excitement for people watching. I’m all for innovation and pushing things forward so it’ll be interesting to see if that stays in for next year and if there are any new changes brought in.”