At a relatively early point in the tournament, reigning European champions Iceni have a very important game on their hands. Besting Seagulls in their pool and losing to Fury were results without serious surprise. An early wobble in the former was corrected for a confident win, and whilst some were frustrated by the Fury game, the Londoners gained valuable experience from the matchup and had a lot of fun whilst they were at it – both being crucial in such a rare opportunity. Standing in the way nexte was Japan’s Swampybarg – a largely unknown team for Iceni.
However whilst this team may not have the reputation of UNO, Huck or MUD, Swampybarg had already made their mark in Cincinatti dispatching Malafarma 15-1 earlier in pool play. This routing was the biggest margin of victory so far at WUCC, and would likely remain so for the whole tournament. Malafarma caused Iceni considerably more trouble until 9-9, before a late game push saw Iceni take it 15-10. It is unfair to remove contexts when comparing teams’ results; Malafarma clearly found an inspiration against Iceni that they couldn’t when up against Swampybarg. However what was certain going into their matchup was that both teams are serious contenders.
Both teams took a turn each as they settled into the first point, but Iceni broke through early with Grainne McCarthy finding Sophie Wharton confidently for the 2-1 lead. Iceni were finding early form here, and after the disc floated over one of Swampybarg’s superstars, Saori Inoue, Iceni took advantage again and calmly scored another break. The half continued to be a display of intense, exceptionally clean ultimate with minimal calls and very quick points. Swampybarg bit back after winning a short field from an Iceni drop, and quickly looping a blade to the break side. Iceni wouldn’t let momentum grow for the Japanese however, with Sonia Komenda breaking the mark effortlessly washing away any recent memories of conceding a break with a confident assist to Maya Mileck.
Withi Iceni receiving 8-7 up after half, the rapid exchange of points halted for a moment as both teams raised their defense, jostling for the second-half momentum. This monster point included six turnovers alone between the teams, many on long range efforts as both sides attempted to capitalise. On what would eventually be a successful attack on the Swampybarg endzone, Jackie Veralls completed a huge possession saving layout before flipping an assist to Qiao Yan Soh. One of the youngest and newest recruits along with Claire Baker, Joyce Kwok and Leila Denniston (on loan from London’s Deep Space), Yan coolly stepped up in this match contributing a further goal and assist on top of this across the game. So – as Iceni asked each other – what’s cooler than being cool? Well – following this up with another break in quick succession. A rare drop from Inoue gave Iceni a short field, but they couldn’t convert initially as the huck faded away from Wharton. On second asking, Iceni made sure – Sonia Komenda’s powerhouse handling stepping up another notch with an un-defendable low backhand pivot securing another advantage for Iceni. Lend me some sugar, they shouted. I am your neighbour. Iceni were just about taking control, and they were very clearly enjoying it.
Swampybarg responded with intent however – clawing back another break and keeping the game very exciting for the neutral. Iceni’s O line looked as confident as it had all game, but after an errant pass the Japanese got the turn they were looking for, and wasted no time over sending a looping shot to the endzone to make it 10-9 Iceni. The masterclass continued from both teams, with faultless ultimate until 13-12. Gifted a short field after a slippery Iceni release, the Swampybarg leadership pounced again, scoring the crucial upwind goal and punishing one of the very few mistakes made in the game.
With both sides even at 13-13 after 80 minutes of play, Iceni adopted the elite poise they’ve generally been associated with over the last decade, threading pass after pass around the Japanese. Defensive pressure was still intense, and game pressure the highest yet by far but after a long possession Iceni put in yet another rock solid goal: 14-13. Before this match, schedule hawks may well have doubted Iceni’s chances. Since they broke an almost perfect run of European and domestic dominance, the team has been squeezed by the double pressure of endlessly high legacy expectations, and somehow also the failure of meeting these same expectations. It will have felt good, then, as they followed up on their hold with a block on the reset from Komenda, which shortly after ended up with a goal to the talismanic and still unstoppable Veralls to take the win on their terms, from defense. Ice cold.
Speaking after the game, it was clear Iceni had as much of a game plan as they could. Kwan explained ‘It was very hard to get much scouting done . . . we knew they were many players from the U23 team a couple of years ago, and we knew we had to try and take away their IO breaks”. Asked about their route to quarter finals from here, Kwan had considerably less to say, but with a simple ‘I honestly have no idea’ showed that sights were being set no further ahead than they needed to. With new leadership in the form of Kwan and Karina Cooper’s, ‘Ice’ have gone through a bit of a re-branding. Fresh kit and Outkast inspired chants are the superficial changes most apparent, but the team and captains are also challenged with assimilating their legacy position as dominant in competition and elite-only at trainings, with a younger energy and more developmental function across the London and UK Ultimate community. It’s no easy task, but today Iceni succeeded at this, balancing youth with experience, and managing to appropriately focus both on themselves and the external challenge to powerful effect. They now have a formidable power pool carrying over their loss to Fury, and also meeting Riot (USA) and Iris (CAN). Whilst we know they won’t be getting ahead of themselves, there’s a huge amount to play for here, and the warriors from London may well be defying a few more predictions as they continue their WUCC campaign.