Poncelet says Léo’s professional outlook paying dividends ahead of EHL FINAL4

Two weeks since Royal Léopold’s return to action for the second half of the Belgian season and their form is bubbling up nicely in time for their massive EHL FINAL4 date with HC Bloemendaal. 

In the past weeks, the Brussels club got the better of title rivals KHC Dragons and La Gantoise – who were unbeaten before Christmas – to put themselves in pole position in their section of the Honor Division and on course for a playoff place. 

For Nicolas Poncelet – one of three Red Lions in the team along with Tom Boon and Max Plennevaux – he says that experience of hitting form at the right time is something Léo need to manage correctly if they are to make inroads in the EHL. 

In 2019, their section of the KO16 draw seemed to offer them a manageable route to the FINAL4 but they showed a green streak against an experienced Real Club de Polo, letting a 3-2 lead turn into a 4-3 defeat in the last minute. 

“We were happy with the draw, facing a Spanish team. Normally we are ok to manage their tactics but it was a surprise to play so bad,” he told the EHL website.  

“It’s maybe something you don’t see when you watch from the outside but something you know when you are part of the team and know how good the guys can be.  

“When you are in the EHL, some players feel it and it can be due to the stress, that they don’t dare to play their game, too many things on their mind. When we lost to Polo, we had the team to win but played a bad game. Experience can mean so much in this kind of games. 

“We let that chance go and have to wait for this year! It was a good lesson. We have to play our best; everyone has to let the stress go. It’s only a game of hockey – at the best level, that’s true – but you still have to enjoy it, not to be scared. 

Learning those lessons has been part of an ongoing journey for the 2019 Belgian champions with Poncelet feeling they are undergoing a strong transformation. 

He grew up at the club, starting out age five, while his father is the first team manager. But he felt the need to seek out an alternative option with KHC Dragons to progress his game after some frustrating seasons. 

As a teenager, Léo bowed out in ROUND1 to Irish side Banbridge and Poncelet said it was an indication things needed to change. 

“With the team we had, we should have won but we struggled to adapt our game against teams with other tactics and you can see our big guys did not play their best. Belgian teams have what it takes to perform and win – you can see the WatDucks last time – but with Leo then, we didn’t react well.” 

And so the following season he switched to Dragons, winning a national title in 2017 and playing in some crazy EHL games.  

Getting away from Bloemendaal’s Xavi Lleonart in 2018. Pic: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pic

The first saw them battle hard against a Bloemendaal side stacked with Xavi Lleonart, jamie Dwyer, Thierry Brinkman, Florian Fuchs and Thierry Brinkman, ultimately coming unstuck.

The second game he describes as like a public service to hockey when they won 20-10 in a classification match against Three Rock Rovers, a result that helped scrap the two-goals for a field goal experiment. 

“With Dragons, we had a super team in the Belgian league but Bloemendaal were really good. We conceded early on; we went man-for-man but they were really strong and when they played so well, you felt like you had no chance.  

“We didn’t play badly but they were on the next level. When you saw Roel Bovendeert sliding in for that first goal, it was just super well-played and you can’t say much more than that!  

“For the Three Rock game, it was a ridiculous moment. Of course, we were frustrated from the first game so really wanted to smash the second one. The history of hockey probably needed a game like that to understand why it was a ‘bad rule’. It’s like this in every sport. Some rules come in and you need this kind of situation to understand why it’s bad. It was like a public service!” 

While he had plenty of fun, the lure of his home club came quickly and he was enticed back by a greater commitment to raising the level. 

“I wanted something more professional and Léo understood this. They were on a good track and changed the mentality. Now, it’s much more professional and we, ourselves, became the Belgian champions!  

“What I love about Leo is all the guys growing up spend a lot of time at the club and on the sidelines, watching the games. All my best friends are from Leo and that is one of our strengths. On the pitch, you can see it. 

“Leo has always been a big family. But beside that, you also need to be a little professional to prepare. The year I left, it wasn’t sufficient. The club started to understand that, improving things like the video analysis, the recovery sessions… it is all getting better and better and that’s why Tom Boon and Max Plennevaux came to the club.  

“They know it can be good for them, to have a team that can be champion. Everything in the week is already planned; the coaches are in contact with us a lot about what we have to train so we are in the right place to keep performing.” 

And Poncelet says it gives them their best shot at taking on Bloemendaal side who he admits will probably enter the tie as favourites. 

“Bloemendaal is maybe the best team [on paper] of the FINAL4 in the EHL. It will be tough; we know how good they are. It gives us a chance to play against one of the best teams in the world and it is a really nice challenge.  

“That kind of team has a lot of experienced players that can make a difference. We have to be at our best. The only thing I want is for our young players, the less experienced ones, is to make sure they enjoy it, that they are not stressed about it. 

“Now, we have a team that is playing together for a while and every year we are moving up. Now, we are mature enough to be good enough to face the best in Europe.”