Another debutant and another University preview. Samuel Higginbotham gives us his views on the North!
We can all feel it. The nights are drawing in, the days are colder, wetter, and the club season is over. It can only mean one thing. Winter is coming. Just like in Westeros, the battle lines have been drawn, teams have been rushing to prepare before Winter truly arrives, and an almighty clash is about to occur in the North.
After last year’s relatively predictable outcome (the only surprise to some being Sheffield Hallam qualifying for Division 1 Nationals), this season is poised to be the closet its ever been in Northern 1A with Manchester, Halcyon, and Durham facing off for the title of Kings In The North. While this titanic clash occurs, in the background the other teams are in a four-way battle for that ever-so-important third place coming with the sweet prize of Division 1 Nationals. All the teams are pretty settled, have kept most of their best players, and all have a plan so it really is all to play for this year.
It promises to be an exciting season with lots of really tight games, many of which I’m confident will go to universe point and they’ll be a shock result somewhere or other down the line. My beloved University of Sheffield failed to get promoted back into this year’s dogfight so join me in watching the excitement unfold from afar.
First up is Durham, they’ve been runners up in this league for the past two years. However their new captain, Great Britain Under-24 and Smog Mixed star Alexis Long, is confident his fresh, back to basics style will finally allow Durham to take the title of “Kings in the North”. Reclaiming the regional top spot for the first time since the BUCS league started is a top priority for this ambitious team.
The rise of Smog Mixed over the past few years has significantly helped Durham and a lot of their team played for them over the last Mixed Tour season, helping them to build chemistry and gain lots high level experience. This, coupled with the fact that Smog’s men are scrimmaging with Durham in the build up to the World Ultimate Club Championships, gives them belief that they’ll have a very big edge over their rivals from Manchester. Furthermore the college Ultimate system at Durham means there has always been a big Ultimate community there. The move to a BUCS league has allowed Durham to take advantage of this, entering three teams across the leagues (their second team even spending a season in the top league last year). The experiences these players will have gained means Alexis has a plethora of talent to select his team from and means they probably have the most strength in depth of any club in The North. Long backed this up when asked who his star players were by stating “look out for all our players in the future”.
The team has put down a strong marker, stating their objective for the season is to win Outdoor Nationals. It remains to be seen whether any team from The North can put a dent in that aim.
In response to Durham’s bold ambitions for the season Manchester Captain Robbie Kyme (Devon Ultimate) stated with equal confidence “I’m not worried about Durham”. Halcyon are more concerned this season with building a team ethos around “smart play”.
They still have great players and have managed to hold onto Chevron Action Flash’s Steve Dixon for another year. If Kyme can quickly help his other players develop their game intelligence they have the potential to be one of the strongest teams in the country. Don’t expect “robotic” Ultimate from Halcyon this season and be prepared to adapt your teams defence against the many new offensive looks Manchester are intending to play. They have lost some of their top talent in the form of Manchester Ultimate’s Khoo Soo Thong. However, if they make the most of their training time and utilise the big Ultimate community in the area, in the form of Black Sheep and Manchester Ultimate, I believe they can win the league and finish highly at Nationals.
The match to watch for is obviously their away trip to Durham in the penultimate game week of the season. If the winner of this match doesn’t win the league then a big upset will have occurred somewhere throughout the season.
Next up is the newly promoted Bangor, who intend to be the surprise package of the season. Captain Dom Knight (Smog Open) has a good core of solid, well drilled players to call on along with star quality in the form of Edward Simpson (GB U24 Mixed) and Hari Tidswell.
This team will play very confident and exciting Ultimate, believing they have one of the “strongest long games in the entire division”. This brand of play will force other teams to adapt to Bangor’s game or suffer the consequences. I think they will have been disappointed when looking at the fixture list to find they only have two home games as the Treborth Playing Field must be one of the hardest venues you can play at in BUCS. First of all it’s difficult to get your full squad down to Bangor (with Durham to Bangor surely being the longest journey any team will have to make in any league), combine that with the reliably strong coastal wind, Bangor’s tight zone, Dom Knight’s frankly unfair pulling ability and any university team that goes there will struggle. Durham’s visit to Bangor may be the toughest test that team will have to face until Nationals.
Last year was arguably Sheffield Hallam’s best as an open team, with the men qualifying for Division 1 Nationals both in and outdoors. The only small blemish was a Varsity loss to their university rivals from across the Steel City (sorry guys). I think the experiences gained by this relatively young squad last year are really going to pay dividends this season and they’ve already hit the ground running, winning Leeds Beginners.
Hallam have entered a second team into BUCS this year in attempt to help keep those keen and sporty freshers that might otherwise get no chance to play after indoor Regionals and before Nationals. If Alex Morgan and his other experienced veterans Tyler Copley and Drew Fitton can coach them well and improve their technical ability quickly their squad will improve dramatically by the second half of the season, as these first years are fed into the first team.
Spectacular athleticism and team spirit are hallmarks of all good Hallam squads and Alex’s team has this in abundance. On top of that Hallam will play with their habitual confidence and well-drilled style. Their ability to switch between tight person defence and a frustrating zone they will punish teams if they aren’t focussed. It’ll be tough for anyone to beat them. Key matches for them will be their away trips to Leeds and Newcastle. If they can win both of those they’ll only need to snatch one more to equal last year’s outdoor finish, surely the minimum expectation for this team if they want to build upon the previous season’s success.
The other newly promoted team this season, Newcastle, are relishing the chance to push themselves against the best teams in the north. They’ve spent a couple of seasons in the second division and as a result of the long, gruelling, relentlessness that is a Division 2 season have built up an amazing team spirit over the past two years.
Their captain Fred Davis has a lot of depth and talent at his disposal. They have a mix of experienced handlers, great at moving the disc quickly such as The Brown’s Chris de Leeuwe, and cutters that they believe can outrun any team in the league. They will be hard for any team to shut down, even in tough conditions (it’s not just Bangor that have to train in high wind). But it’s with defence that Davis intends to win games. They have a strong zone that can easily pin a team in their endzone if not careful and are working heavily on their fitness to ensure that, when necessary, they can shut down teams with person defence as well.
Newcastle will be upset they’ll have to play their first season in the top league without last year’s stalwarts Ivan Mladjenovic and Alex Thompson. Fate has smiled on them it appears though, in the form of Fire of London’s Ross Nugent moving up from Portsmouth to do a Masters Degree by the Tyne. Newcastle believe this team of plucky northerners can not just ensure their status in the top league, but also finish in the top three and go to Division 1 Nationals.
Leeds are always a hard team to speculate about. On paper they have one of the strongest teams in the league. With Chevron and GB-U24 Open’s Jonah Leake captaining and with PhD students Robert White and Nicolas Peters, they have star quality. Add that to a strong line composed of the players like Ray Kwan and Mike O’Sullivan, who were important in LLLeeds rise back into A-tour last season, and they can beat anyone on their day. However availability is often a problem and they might feel this has caused them to miss out on a Division 1 spot the past few seasons.
To this end, one of Leake’s aims for the season is to develop new players by using the BUCS league to help build up players’ fundamental skills fast and to help the club push on in the future. The University has strong connections with the local team LLLeeds, who are running skills sessions with the squad, and Chris Bamford is as persistent as ever in attracting and developing new players in the club. This can only help the university.
Unfortunately the danger is that the new teams this year are going to be stronger than the ones Leeds have beaten in the past. Unless they develop fast and can get their better players to games consistently they might be in for a tough season.
Barring any major upsets, the top two positions in this league will belong to Manchester and Durham. You could easily make a case for either team taking the top spot but I think Durham’s focus on nailing the basics, a squad chock-a block with high level experience, and great depth for those long trips down to Bangor will give them the edge on their Halycon rivals. I’m fairly confident in that assessment. However where the next four teams will finish is anyone’s guess! I’m willing to be bold and say Bangor are going to shake up the league, take a few teams by surprise and earn that last Division 1 spot. Hallam seem to enjoy being the underdogs so I’m going to predict they’ll get the two wins required for league safety and encourage them to prove me wrong by beating Bangor. Unfortunately for Newcastle I think they’ll have some very close games that will go down to the wire but will fall just shy of staying up. Leeds will be in for a tough season against some well-prepared teams and think this is the year they’ll go down. Though now I’ve said it, watch Nicolas Peters and Robert White sneak out of their labs for five Wednesdays to go on and win the league.
Potential upset of the season: Bangor vs Durham
Team most likely to make me eat my words: Hallam
Feature photo by Rachel Turton.