Charlie Blair looks back at the 2013 season and ahead at what’s to come in 2014.
With 2014 just around the corner, the Women’s Tour is about to embark on its tenth year. It is only fitting then that this year was one of landmark achievements, with our domestic battles being heightened by the two qualification spots at WUCC up for grabs. Moreover, this qualification process instigated pioneering changes to the organisation of the divisions this year; ones that appear to be forcing many women’s clubs to reassess their form and direction. As tSG reflects on some of the triumphs and challenges of the season, what can we expect from the season ahead?
The UK Women’s Tour proudly concluded this year’s campaign triumphant in Bordeaux, with representation from four British clubs at xEUCF; a reflection of the depth within women’s ultimate in this country that remains unmatched by any other European nation. As such our clubs were arguably responsible for some of the most spectacular games of the tournament, notably those of the final and the ‘game to go’.
For Bristol, the remaining qualification spot boiled down to yet another match up with their British counterparts, SYC. However, with onlookers commenting that it’s the best they’ve seen either play in years, perhaps no other opposition could have brought out such defining performances from both teams. According to Bristol veteran, Jen Hart:
‘We were playing for everything. We went three or four points behind and then we had a game changing layout from Bridget Brown and that was the turning point- from then on we were ruthless, we had layout blocks and clinical scores.’
For SYC, such a game took its toll on a 13 woman squad that had lost several players throughout the season to injuries, babies and the Middle East! They too applaud each other for inspirational play but credit the strength of Bristol’s handler movement, unrelenting upon their fatigue. It was a ‘devastating’ loss after having been in the lead, and unfortunately one which seems to reflect the positive start to the season they had, that faded as Bristol began their ascendency and usurped SYC’s place in the Tour 3 and Nationals finals.
In contrast, this victory cemented a landmark year for Bristol who not only qualified for worlds for the first time in their club’s history but also took home their first ever Tour victory in Cardiff, against Iceni. Not to mention taking home the Spirit prize from Euros for a second year in a row.
Unsurprisingly then, Iceni are having to respond to the challenges they faced from both Bristol and their European counterparts this season. In the xEUCF final, Iceni, keen to send a strong message to the world having already qualified for WUCC, were pushed harder than ever to defend their title in what was visibly their toughest mental and physical game of their whole season. A victory required some super human efforts from the likes of Fran Scarampi who injected the momentum into her team to see out the game.
|Francesca Scarampi making ‘that huge grab’ in the xEUCF final. Picture courtesy of Ingeborg Kuijlaars of Get Horizontal.|
For Iceni, 2013 was the beginning of a two year season that culminated at WUCC. Therefore, they took the opportunity to choose a very big squad and train regularly this year. But as Ange Wilkinson admits, this became a ‘bit of a balancing act’ having such a large number of talented and hard-working athletes to manage. Particularly with so many other international commitments demanded from a substantial portion of the team. Consequently, chinks in the Iceni armour did indeed show this year and so looking forward to 2014 they seek ‘a renewed commitment from all our players to really push their own, and the team’s boundaries’.
Indeed, women’s Nationals this year really brought this issue of commitment to the forefront amidst concerns about how the poor turnout reflected the state of women’s ultimate in the UK. Jen Hart suggests that if there had been more movement at the top of the Women’s Tour than it might have encouraged teams to stick out and push for Euros. As such, the wider significance of their example at Tour 3 is not lost on Bristol themselves, who maintain:
‘People tend to talk about themselves and their team, but it’s not just about us winning- it was about changing the norm, beating the historical powerhouse that is Iceni; showing the other women’s teams that it doesn’t always have to be the same, showing that with enough hard work and belief you CAN win a Tour final.’
And it is such success that their peers delight in sharing in, and for many of whom, Bristol have been the most impressive team on the Women’s Tour this season.
Their confidence, communication and strong fundamentals have impressed the leadership of both Punt and Iceni, whilst Megan Hurst of Seven Sisters considers them ‘a real role model for the women’s scene in general’. She sees them as a great example of a geo club who don’t share the graduate pulling power and transport links of London.
I agree that it is exactly this kind of inspiration that the Women’s Tour desperately needs. Now that Bristol have gone some way to dispelling the predictability of Women’s Tour, it’s not just Iceni who have been encouraged to reorganise their aims and structure after this season. Seven Sisters can only speculate how they will look next year, having decided to focus much more exclusively on home grown and local players rather than being a satellite outfit. Whilst SYC are looking to hold more frequent London trainings and take a bigger squad. As such, this trial period, captain Cesca Tyler is keen to see ‘the SYC Saturday sessions attended by as many London based or close to London women as possible, whatever team played for’.
Moreover, the success of Leeds Leeds Leeds is testament to the need for strong local foundations. It was these that allowed them to surpass even their own expectations, with captain Hannah Boddy admitting, ‘Euros wasn’t even on my radar in January!’. But despite much of their team never having ever played tour before, they were elated to maintain a consistent fourth place position. Boddy accredits this to the unity formed amongst her players who frequently trained with local geo teams, outside of tournaments and Leeds weekend trainings. In her eyes, the ability to build a successful team from scratch had much to do with a proactive attitude to skills days and local university team success, which has fostered the ‘ambition, talent and dedication of the ladies in the north’.
Nevertheless, the adjustments that some of these clubs intend to make to their organisation can also be seen as a natural response to the simultaneous hosting of Women’s and Mixed nationals this year. It is no surprise that Women’s clubs are now demanding greater commitment (to varying degrees!) from their players, more or less forcing them to make the choice between the two divisions in alignment with the changes to the tournament calendar. Certainly, Iceni has made that abundantly clear, having organised all training weekends over the mixed tour dates.
However, this choice will inevitably serve to weaken some other women’s clubs. It was a great shame that the only other team to have somewhat dispelled the status quo of the top four, PUNT, didn’t attend Nationals because the majority of their players committed to mixed instead. Yet captain Magili Matsumiya quite rightly points out, that if we intend to be showcasing in each division at the same event (which is the case in all international tournaments) we need both committed mixed and women’s teams domestically if we want to perform well:
‘I think you could equally say that having mixed nationals alongside women’s resulted in a low show for mixed, in terms of really top teams anyway (eg RGS and Magic Toast were consistently top four at Mixed Tour but all their players are on Iceni/Clapham/SYC/Chevron). What is certainly true is that there currently isn’t a sufficient player base of female players to have high quality mixed and women’s at the same event’.
Whilst some may lament what appears to be a withdrawal of playing opportunity for women and damaging to the women’s game, in fact this separation is creating more opportunity for women, and of much higher quality. In my opinion, it has simultaneously highlighted the great dearth of female participation in Ultimate and provided the capacity to absorb and develop new talent to resolve that. A greater commitment to either women’s or mixed clubs will also allow them to create a greater legacy that is not totally reliant on a certain generation of players to sustain it.
So whilst we may not see PUNT return to full force and picking up from where they left off from 3rd place at Tour, we can look forward to what new local outfits have to offer us in 2014, as well as those not distracted by international ambitions. Swift will be looking to develop strength again in the wake of losing players to mixed this season. In addition, there is excitement surrounding the inception of a Manchester based women’s team who have started to train under the leadership of experienced players such as Jools Murray. Equally, World Games star and A Tour regular, Izzy Burke, has already started training up a Devon women’s team as early as this September in preparation for the 2014 season! And if the training shirts and fresh faces in the pictures of their first training session is anything to go by, it appears to be a much needed vehicle for talented juniors to have the opportunity to not simply be exposed to Tour, but train for it.
|Devon Women have their first training. Photo courtesy of Devon Ultimate.|
So this year Women’s Tour was a landmark year in terms of long term orientation, with a wakeup call from upsets on pitch, and some artificial cajoling from the UKU’s scheduling off pitch. tSG wishes Iceni and Bristol the best of luck in their preparations for WUCC and will be following them all the way! And here’s hoping that this inspiring commitment from so many clubs and individuals to develop women’s Ultimate will produce the best attended Tour season with the highest quality games to date. Nothing less than what its tenth anniversary deserves!
Awesome! So much going on here at tSG HQ, are you ready for it?
DP @ tSG