UKU Tour 1 Preview – Open A Tour

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Sean Colfer prepares himself for prediction backlash with his UKU Tour 1 top division preview.

Here we are again. The Mixed season has come and gone like a spring shower, whetting the appetite for a new Open and Women’s season. It’s an important one too – later this summer six of these teams will test themselves against the best in the world at WUCC in Cincinnati, while another will be going to the prestigious US Open in Blaine, Minnesota. Let’s take a look at A Tour here, before moving on to B and C in a separate article.

The top of the Open division could feel the effects of some surprises and shifting priorities this year. Devon stole in to take the third Worlds spot, meaning some of the teams who had thought they’d be in a position to challenge for that place – EMO finished third at Tour last year while Fire finished fifth, both ahead of Devon – have had to take stock of where they stood and how they might move forward into the next cycle. Those two teams, in particular, are good case studies of how clubs react at the beginning of another four-year journey to the next WUCC.

EMO look as though they will continue doing what they always do – bringing in younger players from the always-strong Midlands universities and developing them into players that can make a difference. They’ve had a lot of success with that model over the last few years, bringing through players like Rollo Sax-Dixon (now with Chevron), Lloyd Cheesman (most recently with Clapham) and Andrew Hillman (now with Clapham), as well as current coach Ben Poole. Poole is one of the most experienced faces in the EMO squad, alongside new addition and captain Sam ‘Toast’ Rayner, formerly of Leeds and GB Mixed, and Dave Povey, who played for the GB Masters team in London and captained them at WCBU in Royan last year. They have plenty of other strong contributors, and with a new approach to how they’re organising the team it will be interesting to see where they go this year. It should be noted that they’re also sending a huge second team, so the club is in rude health despite the disappointment of slipping down the standings at Nationals. “The Midlands is full of young talent and we’re trying to be the club that takes on that development challenge and eventually reaps the rewards in depth,” explained Rayner.

Fire, on the other hand, have taken a new approach. Where they once stuck with what they knew and favoured continuity, they have this year decided to reset entirely and try to build the squad anew. Their squad features plenty of fresh faces and new talent, though they’ll be led by captain Adam Lothian, a long-time player with plenty of experience at national and international level, alongside Rolo Turnell-Ritson, Steve Walton and Ian Popplestone, all of whom played for Fire last year and bring know-how to the table. Their lines will be quite tight, but they went to Fog Lane and finished third with shorter lines and Lothian feels good about their chances, describing the younger players as ‘selfless’ and lauding the new mentality around the team and how players have stepped up into new roles to plug gaps left by departing and retiring players.

He said: “We’re aiming to maintain the standard that Fire has set in previous years. We’ve created a strong set of values that the whole team has committed to putting into action. I am genuinely excited about the change and I’m feeling really positive that this team has the makings of being just as good, if not better, than previous Fire teams”.

The team that surpassed them both at Nationals, Devon, enter with loftier goals than a Tour title in mind. They’ve consolidated their team from last season and added to it, too. Jake Warren returns after spending time with Ka-Pow! in London, and joins a couple of other newer faces. Captains Sam ‘Cowboy’ Luxa (GB Master at WCBU), Richard ‘Cowie’ Coward (GB Mixed) and Piers Tincknell have all played for the team for years and will be looking to steer the fish monsters to a high finishing place – something their second placed-finish at Fog Lane (Devon 1 reached the final, where the teams were consolidated) suggests is a strong possibility – ahead of taking the band over to the USA. They play a huck-heavy game and back themselves to make big plays whoever the opponent, so watching them match up with Clapham and EMO could produce some fireworks.

The other team in contention for those spots last season was Ka-Pow!, who were up on Fire before a painful comeback left them out in the cold. They have taken a large squad this season and have been blooding their newcomers in build-up tournaments. Their appearance at Tom’s Tourney was up and down, but there remains some strong talent here. Captains Will Smith, Ben Norris and Kevin Horgan will be looking for the team to gel as we progress through the season and for players like Richard ‘Macca’ Macleod and Marius Hutcheson to make the difference in tight games.

Two teams who finished well last season, Reading and Glasgow, return as high seeds. Both focused on Mixed last season but their fourth and sixth-place finishes respectively at Tour shows just how consistent they were. Both have strong squads featuring a number of the men who’ll be going to Cincinnati as part of their Mixed Worlds teams, and both are well capable of disrupting the plans of teams who’ve been training exclusively for Open for months; players like Iain Campbell, Rory Curran and the Webb brothers for Glasgow and Andy Lewis, Andy Mitchell, Ali McNeill and Mark Bignal for Reading will make them difficult opponents for anyone no matter what their focus has been for the last few months.

 

Ranelagh taking on Clapham at UKU Nationals 2017. Photo by Graham Shellswell.

The Irish teams did very well at Nationals last year – PELT finished third and Ranelagh finished fifth. They’ve both been building formidable programmes for a few years now, and both will be sending teams to America for Worlds. Ranelagh won the Irish National title last season and so will be looking to better their western rivals for the rest of the season – a place at Euros the so-far elusive goal for the Laghds. Captain Stephen Jones leads a strong side, although they’re missing some key players from last season like Ferdia Rogers. Still, they’ll be looking to make some noise. PELT have picked up a few additions for their WUCC squad and have done the same here – they will still be tough opponents but perhaps not quite at the level they were in Birmingham in August.

SMOG are seeded 12th and will send a strong team to Nottingham. They’ve been focused on Mixed so far but last season finished a very creditable 11th at Tour. Captain Carlo Conner-Hill will be able to call on almost every male player from the Worlds squad, with Alex Mazzon a notable absence as he plays with SMOG 2 to aid development. Players like Fraser Macdonald, Harry Glasspool, Steve Gillman and Kris Kerswell all have the ability to win individual match ups and in Tom Bennett they have a player who can, at times, seem un-guardable as he does everything for his team. It’ll be fun to see this group match up against Clapham and a strong Reading team they’ll know very well.

Speaking of, I haven’t mentioned Clapham so far. That’s partially by design; we all know they’ll very likely be in the semi-finals, and it would surprise precisely no-one if it was an all Clapham final. These will be the O and D lines for Worlds, with a few additions on the D line. All the big names are there, with Ash Yeo captaining one team and Phil Garner the other. The real thing to watch with Clapham is how slick they’re looking and how well their connections are developing. Their ambitions this season reach across the Atlantic – after a heart-breaking quarter-final loss to eventual champions Revolver in Lecco last time out they’ll be targeting Worlds as a chance to make a mark on the international stage. This weekend will be the first indication of where they stand in meeting those ambitions.

Finally, we move to look at the bottom seed in each pool. Brighton City welcome back Hayden Slaughter after his experience with Clapham last season, and look to have a strong team with captains James ‘Spoon’ Wotherspoon and Joe Butler leading a group featuring plenty of ex-Sussex Mohawks. They’ve drawn a very tough pool with EMO and Devon both also in very good form going into Tour, as well as a Clapham team, but they have a lot of talent and will feel confident they can stay competitive and resist the challenge of the 20th seed, likely Purple Cobras, in their late crossover on Saturday.

Manchester are going through a reset of their own, having lost a number of players over the last couple of years to retirement or the lure of SMOG. They are being coached by former GB Junior and GB under-23 coach Jools Murray, recently returned from Canada, and will be looking to build a new core that can keep them in contention for A Tour places and eventually push them back up to the heady heights of title contention as they were a couple of years ago. This season, though, might be a difficult one and their crossover against a pool containing Birmingham and a strong Reading 2 team looks a tough one.

Flump have also had some turnover and are under new leadership with Chris ‘Crispy’ Tutill supported by Jez Dunnett and Howard Rees. They’ve revamped their offensive playbook and some of the more experienced players will have to step into new roles, but they’ve got enough experience of what it takes at this level now, following two hugely successful seasons, to be competitive on Saturday. They’ll face the winner of a group featuring Leeds, Gravity, Cloud City and one of the Brighton teams in a potential cross so will probably feel quietly confident they can extend their run of A Tour appearances.

BAF are a tough team to read as they will often feature a mix of old and new faces that can, at times, struggle to gel. They struggled through some tough periods last season but also have the kind of mix of enthusiasm and experience that can make them a tough opponent if they get on a roll. Their pool is very difficult so it’s tough to see them leaving a mark in their first three games, so the crossover will be crucial for them. They’re crossing against a pool that features very strong second teams from Fire and EMO so it could be a long Saturday for them if they hit the kind of rough patches they have in the past.

EDIT: it has been brought to my attention that I forgot Chevron. Sorry lads. My guess is that their O line will resemble the recent iterations and so we’ll see handlers like Dom Dathan and Josh Kyme squirreling away while Sam Turner and Steve Kolthammer make cuts upfield. Their talent level is unquestionable, but the big issue for the team, as ever, is how they match up against Clapham. They have been able to bring on some very talented young defensive players over the past few years but the talent gap is still such that they’re a pretty obvious choice in third – good enough to handle most everyone else with a level of comfort, but missing something to challenge the bullfrogs. Ben Burak, who had a spectacular season for Mighty Hucks in Mixed, is one to watch as one of the most underrated players in the country in my view.

So, that’s where I see each team standing. The question now is where I see them all finishing. So without further ado, the first incorrect predictions of the Open season (note – the bottom four are where I see those teams in the context of original starting positions. I’ll make mention in the B Tour preview of the teams I think will cross up into A Tour):

  1. Clapham 1
    2. Clapham A
    3. Chevron
    4. Ranelagh
    5. Devon
    6. PELT
    7. Fire
    8. SMOG
    9. EMO
    10. Reading
    11. Glasgow
    12. Ka-Pow!
    13. Brighton City
    14. Flump
    15. Manchester
    16. BAF

See you all in the eye of the hurricane.

Feature photo by Graham Shellswell

 

***Note: this article was originally incorrectly published titled ‘Men’s A Tour’ – this was corrected on 4/6/18***

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