This was meant to be the season where Welsh hockey further promoted itself on a higher stage. After a breakthrough men's performance at last summer's EuroHockey Championships, Swansea women became the first Welsh club side in either gender to be promoted to England's Premier Division this season.
On Saturday, they played their first home match to little fanfare as Holcombe, featuring a number of Welsh players, took advantage of an under-prepared Spartans side to prevail 5-0. However, in a season like no other, Swansea believe they can still make hay in the top flight.
"We were expecting it to be a big spectacle, it's a huge deal and something we were all looking forward to," said Kat Gierak, Swansea's 36-year-old captain. "It was a strange atmosphere and nothing what we thought it would be like.
"When we won the league there weren't any celebrations as we missed the last game of the season due to Covid. But this is something we've wanted for years, not just as Swansea but as Wales and it's a great opportunity to be in the league."
Swansea's coach, Gareth Terrett, has recruited wisely. As a former coach in California, he signed four US collegiate players, who are studying at Swansea, although their enforced isolation and the squad's lack of pre-season has meant two opening defeats.
There was certainly an international feel against Holcombe, who also featured a strong Argentinian-born trio which threatened Swansea's circle. Agueda Moroni and Ivanna Pessina scored Holcombe's third and fourth goals, while Welsh goalkeeper Rose Thomas had a quiet afternoon in Holcombe's goal.
Midfielder Gierak, a PE teacher in Bridgend, is into her 14th season at Swansea, currently the club's longest-serving player. She made her senior Welsh debut in 2009 but stepped back after the birth of her son in 2016.
Gierak knows the travails of Welsh athletes competing on the global stage and paying their own way. Yet there continues to be reason for optimism across both genders after the men last year played their first match in Europe's elite competition for the first time in 20 years.
Gierak said: "With all the things the national squads are doing to raise the profile of hockey in Wales, we're hoping we can help out with that by raising the standards of the Welsh women's squad. Providing that opportunity in Wales to play at the highest level is something Wales has wanted for years and I hope they make most of it and as a country we pull together for the younger players to pull through.
"Every game means something now. We would be very ambitious to get into the top half [the league splits at Christmas] but it's all about staying in the league this year. We've got to do everything we can to maintain that position, for Wales as a country, for us a club and for us to grow as a team."
League lockdown uncertainty
Holcombe travelled down the night before the game but with Swansea now in local lockdown, there are fears over the club's next home game - against Clifton on Oct 10 - and the impact it could have on the league. "We're still uncertain as to how it will affect teams travelling in from England," said Kat Gierak. "It would be horrendous if we were made to forfeit games because of it. It would wipe our season out completely."
Lee 'major coup' for Grinstead
Jason Lee has returned to the women's elite game working alongside Mary Booth as head coach at East Grinstead, signalling a "major coup" for the club. Lee, the former GB coach who left after the 2014 World Cup, was handing out instructions for the second time as hosts East Grinstead overturned their recent poor start to seasons by topping the table following a 3-0 win over Beeston.
The visitors had a bright opening spell but couldn't convert. And so forward maestro Sophie Bray duly scored for the eighth match in a row on her way to a double. Her first had come seconds after in-form Tess Howard had slotted home a 20th-minute opener. "Jason is great for us and the girls are responding to him," said Booth. "He is asking questions of them. We are an attacking team but if we defend properly we are going to win."
Since leaving as GB coach in 2014, Lee has been working in a number of roles, including as coaching consultant with football's Premier League. He also continues mentorship work with coaches at Reading HC. The key now for East Grinstead is retaining - and attracting - players. They have the star appeal, but also the likes of Harriet Mitchell, a former England junior, who stood out against Beeston. "She's dogged, quick and strong in the tackle," said Booth. "She reads the game really well."
Earlier, East Grinstead players had paid tribute to Matt Ratana, the police officer shot dead in south London, with a minute's silence. Ratana coached a stone's throw away at the local rugby club. He had coached several hockey players who had turned to rugby.
Students to the fore
Loughborough recorded the best result of the weekend as they held champions Surbiton to a 0-0 draw at home. Coach Brett Holland said: “We would’ve lost this game last year, but our maturity is growing exponentially and we had some really good spells of possession." Meanwhile Clifton Robinsons got their first win of the season with a 3-1 win over Wimbledon. After an opening day defeat to Surbiton, Buckingham also scored a first victory, coming from 2-1 down to beat Birmingham at home. Lauren Thomas notched a penalty corner double as Zak Jones's side won 3-2. In Division One North, University of Durham were impressive 5-0 winners over Gloucester City.
League travel concerns
As grassroots hockey pushed back in earnest over the weekend, fears have been raised over the league season structure following regional lockdown restrictions. Thousands of players are likely to have shared cars to away games over the weekend and, with the weather on the turn, advice has included opening windows for ventilation.
"In the middle of winter that's just not feasible,"said Joe Rooney, Chester HC ladies performance coach. "Fifty per cent of the north are under local restrictions but we should travel apparently?"
Another coach, who declined to be named, told Telegraph Sport that England Hockey's guidance and approach to its return to play initiative "borders on irresponsible".
"We can't mix two households in locally restricted areas, but for hockey we can mix three or four in a confined space (a car) for hours on end to travel to other restricted areas," the coach said. "Players are then expected to pay to take the risk. Playing in winter, mixing multiple households, driving with windows open and no showering post match will logically lead to increased illness and symptoms that mean they have to isolate which impacts them personally and their team later down the line. Where is the sense in guidance that appears to fully contradict government guidance on mixing of households?"
Where changing facilities are closed, players have been told to arrive and leave in their playing kit this season. Several coaches believe that localised leagues should have been implemented to reduce hours of travel.