Another season is in the books and, for most sides, the off-season is now underway. Sean Colfer takes a look at what happened in Birmingham this weekend, and what it might mean for the European Championships and moving forward for UK Ultimate.
Now that we’ve published all three previews, here’s what our ShowGame team think will happen at Nationals. We’ll give you a projected top four in every division with some discussion afterwards, and a collection of things to watch as well. Hopefully we don’t look too ridiculous come Monday evening…
David “DP” Pryce returns from a successful EuroStars Tour to give his, and some of the team captains’, views on UKU Nationals from the Open division in Birmingham.
With the regular season over and Regionals decided, we move to the business end of the post season. There was a little controversy ahead of Nationals; the EUF announced, after some confusion, that the EUCR-W would only have four bids in the Men’s division.
This weekend is UKU Nationals, where 32 of the best teams from across the UK and Ireland will fight it out for places at EUCF in Italy, as well as places for WUCC in Cincinnati next summer. Here, Sean Colfer previews the Mixed division, which is as strong as it has ever been. Get yourself a cup of coffee for this one – it’s long.
One thing bears saying about this field – every team looks to be chock full of talented players. The depth of Mixed Nationals has been up and down since the UKU made the change a few years ago to have Mixed involved as well as Open and Women’s, but this year the strength in depth is seriously impressive. Every team section talks about how bloody good the team is, so it might get a little repetitive, but one thing that it does show is that Mixed Ultimate is growing in stature in the UK.
There are some very interesting storylines to have emerged ahead of this tournament. The most obvious and seemingly most impactful when it comes to where the silverware will be heading on Sunday evening is the collision courses of two wildly successful teams – Black Eagles and Reading. BlEagles won every Mixed Tour event this season (two by Great Black White Sharks and one by Black Blackbirds) and were defeated by only four teams that weren’t each other – Chevron Mixed and Royal Canadian Goaltimate Society were familiar high-level Mixed pick-up teams, so you can barely count them. SMOG and Glasgow, both in sudden death, were the other losses. Reading, on the other hand, had their now-typical season over Mixed Tour. They were missing key players, experimented with different line ups and tried out new things knowing that, when needed, they had the kind of quality and depth that led to them winning the European title while barely being challenged from August onwards last year.
There are other very good sides to think about too, though. Glasgow did creditably at Mixed Tour while missing various players at different times, Deep Space had a positive first season and Mighty Hucks finished fifth at all three Mixed Tour events. JR may have had a challenging year but they won the Mixed Tour crown last season, and I haven’t even mentioned the rising power that seems to be SMOG yet. When you add in Gravity, an Irish team whose results have been mixed (no pun intended) this season but who feature several players with senior international experience, it truly is a field where any team could get hot at the right moment and make an unexpected run.
Since there are only eight teams to think about, let’s take a look at them individually.
In many eyes, the Scots are the favourites. That tends to be the outcome of a Mixed Tour season in which you take all three trophies and both the first and second places overall in the standings. The club could reasonably have qualified two teams if they’d wished – the strength in depth they have is remarkable.
Their ‘secret’, if you can call it that, is that they don’t rely on any one player. They have some stars – GB Mixed players Callum Easton, Niamh Delaney, Lucy Barnes and Michael Noblett, as well as Irish Mixed player Lulu Boyd and GB under-23s of past rotations like Danny Strasser and Cameron Agnew – but they share the disc impeccably and play aggressive defence. There aren’t really any holes on the roster, so the key for them will be ensuring that they can execute during the high-leverage moments they’re almost sure to experience later on in the tournament. The plays to look out for are Agnew throwing deep, usually to one of their very quick female cutters. Their deep game is excellent and they can work it in any conditions – not something that should be much of a concern with low winds forecast.
The team themselves seem to be keeping their cards close to their chest. When asked about Nationals, the response was a number of football clichés and jokes about their teammates:
“Birmingham is a tough place to play away on the August bank holiday weekend,” said Lulu Boyd (on behalf of several others, I suspect).
“We’re not taking anything for granted. We have to treat each game as if it’s a cup final. Giving it 110%. It’s all still to play for and I’m sure there will be some big upsets. That’s the magic of Nationals.”
While that might seem reasonably coherent, their approach for avoiding complacency was rather less so: “We stay away from the bags. They might be full of complacency.
They top the pool of death here. Facing a strong SMOG team that’s given them trouble this season as well as a talented Deep Space squad and the unknown quantities in Gravity is harder than they might have wished for. I’d still back them to reach the semis though, and if I was a betting man I’d be studying their odds closely (if bookies were mad enough to take bets on fris, obviously).
This looks more like the team that ran roughshod through Europe last August and September. Many of the male players are the same, although one significant addition is the return of former GB-under 23 and Clapham player Andy Mitchell. There has been some turnover with the female players but the additions are very good indeed – GB Mixed and Women’s player Avril Hunter, GB Master Emilia Cruz and under-24 Erin McGready stand out in particular and will offset the losses of players like Iceni and GB under-24 player Amelia Kenneth and SYC cutter Fi Rae.
This is another team without many holes. All of the players are good throwers and the level of athleticism across the squad is very high, so there’s no real weaknesses to play on; teams with obvious weaknesses don’t achieve what Reading have over the last 18 months or so, to say nothing of the solid foundations they were laying for years before that. Again, their ability to manage the game and themselves in crucial spots will be the key. They’ve done it before with resounding success so if you were going to back any team to cope with that pressure, it would be this one.
Captain Bex Palmer said that the development work the team had been able to do over the Tour season had made a positive impact on the team: “Tour is always about development for us and with Mixed, Open and Women’s teams going to Nationals I’m really proud of the people we bring through the ranks. Regionals was a great time for us to get our heads focused as a Mixed team though and I’m sure the player connections we were starting to see at the beginning of the year will tide over.”
She also spoke of the team avoiding complacency while remaining confident: “I think every team this is strong this year, Mixed is the division to watch as I’m sure there are going to be some upsets! For us, we are gonna take it one game at a time and enjoy every one. Personally, I’m in it to win it but the team focus is to go to worlds and medal. If that means taking a loss at Nationals to spur us on to our goal, then I’ll let it slide!”
Their pool is relatively kind – they’ll be confident they can repeat their Regionals win over JR and both Glasgow and Mighty Hucks will struggle to contain such a rounded team. If all goes well, they should be in a semi-final on Sunday morning and they’ll avoid an extra game by winning a spot in the final. I can’t see things going any other way, really, and I think they’ll defend the title.
The North East has long had some very talented players, but have not had a team quite like this one for ages – if ever. Not only have SMOG built a Mixed team of outstanding skill, but they have a whole club with growing Open and Women’s teams as well. The women made a semi-final and the men managed to maintain an A Tour position for the whole season. The Mixed team, though, is the main focus of the club, and they have been excellent this year.
SMOG finished second, third and a surprising eighth at Mixed Tour 3. The women have all played with each other a lot this season and are all solid fundamental players. A few individuals stand out, though; Tessa Hunt and captain Lucy Hyde were both GB under-23 players in London and are as good a cutter/handler pair as you’ll find in this division. The male players are, in a word, tall. Outside of GB under-24 handler Alexis Long, everyone is at least six feet tall (and if you except Carlo Hill they might all be at least 6’2”). They’ve also added Alex Mazzon, who was on the Clapham squad earlier in the season, and Manchester star Tom Bennett to the team that did so well earlier this year.
Hyde discussed the depth of talent in the north east and shared her, and the team’s, hopes for the tournament: “The north east has a lot of talent in it and SMOG has been a great platform to help university and university college players develop into more experienced club players. We want to support geo Ultimate and are hoping to improve our efforts in the seasons to come. SMOG has never finished higher than fifth at Nats, never been to Euros, never been to Worlds and never won a National Championship. Hopefully we can tick at least one of those boxes.”
Overall, this is a team that know each other inside and out, and feature the athleticism and experience to make a huge mark in Birmingham. They’re my dark horse for the title – a tough pool should set them up well for the semis if they can make their way past Deep Space and Gravity. A potential semi-final against Reading would be a spectacular start to Sunday for the neutrals.
The London-based team was established just this season, so it’s been a learning experience for them. Founded to provide the UK Ultimate scene with its only totally dedicated Mixed team, the results at Mixed Tour improved throughout the season – first ninth, then seventh and finally sixth. At Regionals they struggled against Reading and split games against Thundering Herd, but won the one that mattered to qualify for this event.
Captains Sam Vile and Matt Hodgson have a lot of experience in Mixed Ultimate, as both were members of the GB Mixed team in 2016. They have a lot of players who experienced that tournament as well – Nancy Rawlings, Ange Wilkinson, Leila Denniston, Lauren Bryant and Nick Wong among them – but their most important players might be two young male cutters. Deep Space, as their name might indicate, love the deep game, and both Andy Turner and Gus Morse are vital to it. Both can stretch the field and use their height, on O and D, to affect things hugely. Wilkinson, Hodgson and Dom Norton won’t hesitate to throw bombs to either of the young guys.
Hodgson went into detail on what Deep Space were looking to build this year, and how they’ll look to continue that growth in future: “Something that seems to have been lost in communications this season is that Deep Space was not set up with one year or tournament in mind. We were set up to establish a Mixed-exclusive club, aiming to build for the future. We are definitely not a “Worlds team”.
“Setting up something from scratch will always be difficult, but we’re pleased with the culture that has grown during the first season of this club. When setting it up, and throughout this first season, we have been very open with all our players, through Captains communications, strategy decisions, training plans, etc. We’re happy with how this openness has led to our club feeling like it’s gelled well and with a trust that every player is trying their best to create something we can all be proud of.
“We have had a varied season results wise, but we have been focusing on processes over results for much of it. Obviously, Nationals is a big deal and we’re really happy to have qualified in our first season. We’re going there looking to take it one point at a time and continue building as we have done all season. We believe Euros/Worlds is achievable, but we want to build a club for the long term so if it doesn’t happen this year, we keep improving until it does.”
Deep Space have a nice blend of youth and experience, athleticism and throwing ability, and have gelled together well in a pretty short time. Their results have been getting better all season and, despite a loss against a strong Reading team in Edenbridge, they’re set up for a good showing at Nationals. Again, their pool is the tougher of the two in my opinion, but with this kind of talent they have to think they can push SMOG and Black Eagles as hard as anyone.
This might be the most difficult team to read in the UK. JR have a team that have mostly been playing together for years, and never train together. They can be maddeningly inconsistent and make some baffling, impossible-to-justify decisions, and they can also be smooth, confident and unmarkable. Sometimes you get the feeling that’s because they don’t know what’s coming next themselves, but it works for them because of a strong team chemistry and trust in each other.
George Hudson has been the leader of the team for as long as it’s been around, but this year has ceded some control. Charlotte Kennedy has taken over some of that responsibility and is a key cog in the offence from a handler position. Ally Lead, who played for GB Mixed in Royan this year, also seems to have taken on some of the load. The team will rely, as always, on athleticism and big plays. They’re missing some important players by the looks of things – Alex Charlton and Rupal Ghelani are outstanding individual players and offer huge grabs on O (particularly Charlton) and lockdown, spectacular D (particularly Ghelani) that is very difficult to replace.
Hudson discussed the difficulty that JR have had in replicating their Tour win from 2016: “Mixed Tour was really tough. We took a bunch of new players, a new offence and crucially there was not much in the way of wind. No one looked comfortable; it was like watching JR do a bad impression of a team that plays horizontal. I’d say it was the least anyone enjoyed playing for our team and it showed. I think the major lesson learnt this season was to trust ourselves a bit more and not overthink too much. The fault is with us, we are a nightmare of a team to start playing for. You basically have to learn each handler’s style and adapt cut to cut.”
When asked what he hoped for ahead of Nationals, he was succinct: “Wind would be nice. Obnoxious, scrappy, turnover promising wind. I’d argue we are one of the best teams in the UK at dealing with it at the moment.”
JR will be a horrible match up for anyone because they know how to grind out results. If it’s windy they’ll be even tougher to play against. I see them struggling a bit this weekend, but I’m sure they’ll delight in the opportunity to prove to any doubters that winners do indeed wear pink. Their pool gives them a chance – the game against Glasgow at 2.30pm on Saturday looks crucial.
This is another team that had a mixed Mixed season which is pretty difficult to use as a gauge for Nationals. Often bringing a team with very short lines, Glasgow managed to defeat Black Eagles (GBWS edition) at MT1 but finished sixth, eighth and tenth successively. They were missing different parts of their squad at various times this season and so the team that will be in Birmingham is one that we haven’t necessarily seen yet.
On their day, the players on this team can be a real handful. Captain Katie Flight is an excellent handler with loads of experience on various GB teams – she’s an under-24 in this current rotation. Also bringing experience are Shaun and Philip, the Webb brothers. Both have played for GB Masters, and both played for Fusion before Glasgow formed. Flight and the Webbs headline yet another team with excellent athleticism and disc skills, but there do seem to be some weaknesses. For one, carrying only six women according to the squad lists available leaves them open to difficulty if any one of the ladies succumbs to an injury.
Flight explained why Glasgow are feeling so optimistic in their build up, and how they’re targeting an all-Scottish final with frenemies Black Eagles: “At Tour we never brought our full squad as a ‘first team’ as such. We had a large development squad of 40 people, which we cycled through allowing developing players to play side-by-side with established Glasgow mainstays. This improved the overall depth of our squad, but realistically Mixed Tour was a long way from Nationals so we have focused more in training camps and sessions.
“Regionals was an interesting format, and we gave BlEagles the tightest game, so read into that what you will. We are happy with coming third and are looking forward to some non-Scottish opposition in our pool. We haven’t had ever our full-strength squad against southern teams so far so that will be interesting for us and with all of our GBU24 players back on our lines we have our sights set high. We’re hoping for an all-Scotland final to show England what’s north of the wall!”
Glasgow are a team that believes in themselves, and in their ability to win any game. Beating Black Eagles with a really short line at MT1 proves that, and in one-off games they’re definitely good enough to cause a surprise. If they can grind their way into the top four they might be able to create an upset. Personally, I think they’ll be thrilled with their pool and I can see them taking the third seed and earning a semi-final on Sunday morning depending on the outcome of that game vs JR.
Hucks are an odd one – another team that doesn’t train, captain Ben Bruin assembled a team of friends that fancied playing some Mixed last season and it went better than anyone could have hoped. They finished fourth overall on Tour and decided to focus more on it this year. Three consecutive fifth place finishes gave them confidence going into Regionals that they were in a good place to challenge for the top spots.
Since then, they’ve experienced huge roster change. They lost a number of key male players, which forced a bit of a shuffle. Their women are very good – Kat Cheng has played for Iceni, Grace Owen for Bristol and pretty much every single one of them for GB under-23 or -24 at some point or another. They’re missing Dutch national team player Sarah Harrison through injury which will hurt their depth but the women here are good enough to match up with anyone. The only vulnerability might be long speed, but they still have players like Tiff Anderson who can run with anyone. The men, too, are good, but it’s a very different line up. Bruin is joined by Nick Smith and Dec Iles who have played for Hucks for some time. Several other players have been drafted in to fill the roster and overall the talent level is very good. Whether veteran Merrick Cardew, who’s nursing an injury, can play will make a big difference to the complexion of the team.
Bruin feels good about their chances, and their ability to pull things together for Nationals. He said: “We have had new players join throughout the season, at least one new player at every tournament. I think our confidence has always been fairly high, but after losing a few key players to other teams, carrying a few injuries and having a disappointing Regionals, we have definitely taken a knock.
I think we can better that if our offence clicks at the key moments. We have always been very strong defensively and generate a lot of blocks, but due to our constant roster changes we have struggled to build connections. We are going to be stricter on lines at nationals with a fairly set O line that is built on some previously made connections. This should hopefully only see us improve as the tournament progresses.
The one thing that Hucks have had at Mixed Tour over the past few years is relative dominance in the air – the presence of Rollo Sax Dixon has seen to that. He’s with Chevron here, though, so they might be vulnerable to the long game. This is a really good, really experienced and really talented team, and yet I see the weekend being a long one for them. The depth at Regionals this year really is outstanding, but unfortunately someone has to miss out.
I’ll be honest here – I know very little about Gravity. I do know that their women recently won the All-Ireland title and they had a pretty good showing as a Mixed team at Golden Cup a couple of weekends ago. The Dubliners will be coming over here looking to cause an upset, particularly in the first year of Irish teams using UK Nationals as their qualifier for Euros – something that seems to make a lot more sense than them trekking over to Italy or Switzerland to play there.
The women, I’m reliably informed, are the main strength of Gravity. Four of them played in London for Ireland – Sinead O’Shiel Flemming, Aine Gilheany and Claire Pugh for the Women’s team and Jessica Chambers on the Mixed team – and, as mentioned, they ran through the opposition with relative ease at All-Irelands last weekend. The men are no slouches – there are a couple of Ranelagh squad members here and a few under-24 players as well – although a cruelly-timed injury has prevented Daniel Purdy, an Irish Mixed player, from taking part.
O’Shiel Flemming is one of the captains of the team, and she spoke about how excited the team are to face some different teams: “We’re lucky in that we’ve had the bid to go to EUCR since last year’s Mixed All-Irelands, and so have been able to plan accordingly. However, we’re also at a disadvantage because many of our players also play competitive Women’s or Open club Ultimate, and as a result we’ve had to find a balance between preparing as a Mixed club and not exhausting our players. I think we’ve found a nice balance, and we were lucky enough to be able to compete in Golden Cup two weeks ago, which I think was a great way to round off our preparations. EUCR has always been the focus of our Mixed club season this year, so we knew we were using that as preparation.
“Many of our players have a lot of experience in Open and Women’s competitions, including against UK teams at Tour. So, to play in a new division against new teams is a really exciting prospect for us.”
It’s tough to predict where Gravity will place, but their pool does them no favours. Starting out against SMOG is a tough one, but that result will be a strong indicator of how well they’ll do. Black Eagles and Deep Space are also very tough teams to be drawn against, so they might find it a struggle. It’s a great first step for Irish Mixed though, and I’m sure they’re going to be far stronger at future Nationals/EUCR tournaments for this experience.
So, those are the teams. If you’re still reading at this point, you’ll no doubt expect a prediction for you all to hold against me and gloat about when it proves thoroughly incorrect. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for a stand-alone piece later this evening for that!
See you all in Birmingham.
Feature image by Sam Mouat for the ShowGame.
Hannah Pendlebury returns from WFDF World Games fame to help with further Women’s coverage of UKU Nationals in Birmingham.
After seven years on the beautiful south coast, UK Nationals has finally changed its relationship status to “It’s Complicated” and split from Wide Lane. It has instead packed its bags for the grizzly midlands, leaving an orphaned Facebook page and Twitter handle in its wake.
Whilst it seems that the stats and fantasy league tables have also been left adrift back in Southampton, this year’s competition did remember to pack a punch in terms of exciting opportunities for the Women’s division. Inside the UKU suitcases heading to Birmingham this weekend are; a guaranteed World Club Championships 2018 spot, two bids for the forthcoming European Club Championships and nine live-streamed games – so plenty of glory still to play for.
Whilst we will be getting a change of scenery, there is one thing that I don’t expect to be different about Women’s Nationals this year. That being – it’s really a battle for second place. I know you should never say never and I mean absolutely no disrespect to any of the teams attending, but Iceni just look indomitable at this level. But more about them later… For now, let’s see who else will be battling it out for a shot at Euros!
Seed #8: Reading
Reading Women have had a phenomenal season so far this year. As a club better known for their elite Mixed squad, 2017 marked their third year entering the Women’s division, with two very capable teams attending each Tour event. The final rankings of those squads (ninth and tenth respectively) show an obvious depth of female talent, with an especially impressive underdog story in the shape of their second team who were seeded at the very bottom of the division back in June.
Having chosen to take an even-split approach earlier on in the season, Tour 3 gave us an opportunity to see what the upper half of the Reading roster are capable of. As it turned out, that was some pretty high quality Ultimate! Reading 1 finished sixth overall in Birmingham, losing just one game all weekend against overall third-ranked Hydra and securing some pretty dominant wins against Chaos, SMOG and LLLeeds en route to the 5v6.
Whilst I wouldn’t put money on Reading being in the top four by the end of Sunday without their Mixed superstars, they are no strangers to starting at the bottom and battling their way up. They certainly seem to have developed a supportive culture which entices top experienced players and brand new talents alike: their roster features a savvy handler in her 18th year of playing, a cutter in her first year of Ultimate (this will be her fourth outdoor tournament ever), plus a little bit of everything in between!
With the spread of abilities in their ranks, Reading remain a bit of a wildcard going into Nationals. Either way you can be sure that they will execute some confident Ultimate this weekend and maybe they will snag another spirit title to their already impressive haul for the season… Stay tuned to find out!
Seed #7: Chaos
After initially missing the boat on entry to Women’s Nationals this year (much of their roster had Mixed Regionals commitments) Chaos won the game of ‘fastest finger first’ to bag themselves a golden ticket to Birmingham in their debut season. And what a season it has been!
As a brand-new entry to the Women’s Tour circuit, there seemed to be a certain amount of ‘always the bridesmaid, never in the power pool’ when it came to Chaos’ seeding this year. Although they had a great vision at the start of the season with two dedicated coaches and plenty of talent on their roster, injuries and squad inconsistencies seemed to prove an Achilles heel. Whilst they certainly had some great games this year (and developed some gritty rivalries along the way) the results would suggest that they didn’t quite manage to maintain their magic throughout an entire weekend, leaving them unable to climb very far up the rankings.
With the honeypot that is London Ultimate seeming to throw together a new team every few years involving largely the same collection of faces, I hope Chaos put down some roots and stick around for a few more seasons. (Stay together for the kit ladies! It’s so cool!) In all seriousness though, Chaos will no doubt be looking forward to testing themselves against the very top end of UK Women’s Ultimate, since the schedule kept them apart for much of the domestic season. They will also surely be keen for another in a long line of matches against LLLeeds, whom they knocked out of the top eight back at Tour 1 with an epic 20 minute sudden-death point!
However, in order to rise above their seventh seed Chaos will need to handle some significant roster shuffling, with just 11 of their original 21 squad members present at this event. One of the handiest of the new faces will surely be Sarah Melvin of Ireland Mixed, who comes highly recommended from coach Conor ‘Hogi’ Hogan as “one of Europe’s best players in 2015, easily”. Only time will tell if Chaos can utilise players like Melvin to make an impact on Nationals and end their first season on a high.
Seed #6: Rebel
Rebel are one of my favourite teams to play against. Not only are they friendly and superbly spirited, but I love their gutsy, huck-heavy playing style. Hailing from Cork, they make up the Irish contingent for the EUCR-West region.
Although Rebel made an appearance at Tour 2 this year, their roster at Nationals will be much more akin to their team from last season. This makes a great deal of sense, as rather quirkily their qualification for UK Nationals 2017 is based on winning the All-Ireland Championships back in 2016. This was a great achievement but sadly a feat they couldn’t replicate this year, losing to Dublin-based Gravity 15-7 after the ladies in green took an early lead and Rebel struggled to adjust.
Rebel dedicated a lot of time and resources to developing their team in 2016, attending a high number of foreign tournaments – including all three Tour events. Whilst this was a great experience, it has proved unsustainable for the club as a whole, so Rebel will be coming to Birmingham a little less well-prepared than they may have been if money were no object! But with a reliable core of players who are willing to work hard for each other and who ranked second overall for the 2016 season, I wouldn’t count them out for a serious shot at semis if they can bring their A-game.
Seed #5: LLLeeds
LLLeeds have had a solidly consistent but fairly muted season so far, finishing either eighth or ninth at each Tour event for an overall ranking of seventh. However, taking a sneaky peek at their roster on Ultimate Central, this is one of the tastier looking LLLeeds squads I have seen in a little while! Add in some extra spice in the fact that nearly 50% of their roster are only playing Sunday and suddenly you have a potential recipe for some interesting results indeed…
As I have mentioned in earlier previews, LLLeeds are a club with a great legacy. This includes the accolade of being the last team to beat Iceni in a UK Nationals final back in 2010 – though I doubt we will see a repeat of that particular performance this year. Whereas in more recent seasons they have brought out the big guns for Nationals to sneak up the rankings and snag the odd last-minute Euros spot, the increased overall strength within the division will certainly make this a harder task for Birmingham.
Although the change of venues should provide some slightly gustier conditions which will suit LLLeeds’ throwing prowess, I would expect them to hang tough against the top four but fall just short of taking any scalps in pool play. This would of course lock them out of the final, but with their reinforcements arriving on Sunday morning there would still be a route to the 3v4 if they can replay the magic of seasons past! I for one am looking forward to seeing what they can pull out of the hat in Birmingham.
Seed #4: Brighton
I have to admit, Brighton really surprised me at Tour 3. With a comparatively miniscule squad of just nine players (the commentator’s dream) I had made the call that whilst the majority of their squad was fit as hell from Beach Worlds prep, they would fall to fatigue and tumble out of the top bracket. Oh boy, was I wrong.
The last time they were in Birmingham, Brighton played the schedule like absolute champions. By going hard in their early pool games on Saturday and posting up some impressive points differences, they secured themselves second seed and a two-game Sunday. They then went on to take a commanding early lead against SYC in their semi-final, though they eventually lost in sudden death as their legs and brains finally started to falter… But not for long, finishing out the weekend with a 15-8 win over the GB U24 Women.
Looking at Brighton’s roster for Nationals you will spot eight of the nine players who last made the trip up to Birmingham, with the singular loss of Avril Hunter to Reading Mixed. They have also bolstered their ranks with a few extra pairs of legs, including some younger players by way of a long-established connection with Kent’s Ultimate scene and a few home-grown names too.
Naturally Brighton will hope to play the schedule in their favour by winning their pool on Saturday, avoiding the semi-final matchup against Iceni on Sunday morning. However, taking down Nice Bristols will be no mean feat – and it is yet to be seen whether the new pairs of legs will be kill or cure for this tightly-knit Brighton unit. But if they can peak at Nationals as planned and recreate some of the dishy throws and sensational grabs they had at Tour 3 I wouldn’t put it past Brighton to cause an upset. Definitely one to watch!
Seed #3: SYC
Despite their considerable roster changes coming into this season SYC have performed very well, earning the top overall ranking in the Tour standings for 2017. They undoubtedly have plenty of athleticism across the board and some extremely handy international additions who have made a real impact. Tessa Bertozzi, Nina Hintner and Amanda Fung all made huge contributions in the SYC games which I had the pleasure of watching at Tour 3 – both on offence and on defence.
However what SYC will have needed to do since July and now is iron out their unforced errors. In both of their Sunday games at Tour 3 they came out with intense defensive pressure, but initially failed to convert off the back of a fairly messy offence peppered with simple mistakes. If they want to push for the very top spots this weekend, SYC will need to make sure they come out clean from the start. Hopefully under the watchful eyes of coaches James Burbidge and Marie-Sophie Nguyen-Tu, this is something they can achieve.
In terms of the schedule SYC might feel a little hard done by, being seeded third considering their overall finish over the Tour season. However, this actually works to their advantage as they will safely clash against Iceni in pool play and are therefore guaranteed to avoid being knocked out by the warriors during semi-finals. Though that is not to say that they couldn’t be bested to the final by another team instead! Provided that all goes as per the predicted seeding, SYC’s semi will in fact be a rematch from their Nationals 2016 semi-final against Nice Bristols. Whilst the ladies in red took the win last time, this will likely be an intense game and by no means a foregone conclusion. If SYC can come out at their very best I wouldn’t discount them advancing to the final clinching that all-important Euros spot.
Seed #2: Nice Bristols
I said it at the very beginning of this season and I’ll say it again now – I think of all the teams attending Nationals, Nice Bristols have the best shot at beating Iceni. Watching their full-strength squad take the Tour 3 title back in July, it was clear that Bristol have a seriously deep roster which combines both experience behind the disc and sheer athletic power downfield. This is not at all surprising when you consider just how stacked this team is with international level players, with 14 of their 23 players this weekend having represented their home nation at one point or another.
Having turned down their ticket to Euros last year, it would seem that Bristol are more focussed this season, presumably hoping to place high enough to secure a spot at the forthcoming World Club Championships in Cincinnati next year. However, this goal did not prevent them from taking their usual approach to the Tour season as a whole. As in 2016, they dedicated their first two events to developing their up and coming players whilst some of their more experienced teammates attended various ‘real life’ commitments.
Whilst you can’t argue with Iceni’s approach of pocketing the best existing players and pushing them to even higher levels as a model for success, Bristol’s home-grown approach gives them a unique edge of that you have to respect. Aside from the odd Aussie and northerner here and there, the overwhelming majority of their roster are born and bred west country players which suggests excellent connections and speaks volumes to their ability to retain talent.
Even though Nice Bristols have my vote for the ‘best of the rest’ this year, it will still be a very steep mountain to climb if they want to claim their first National Championship. Bristol’s offence at Tour 3 was undoubtedly effective, but their hopes will surely be dashed unless, like SYC, they can tidy things up and convert their blocks more consistently and efficiently. But if they can keep their eyes on the prize and a hold onto their second place seeding until Sunday afternoon at least they can look forward to a small advantage: at least they’ll be used to the double-incline upwind downwind conditions of pitch one already!
Seed #1: Iceni
After taking a hiatus from the UK domestic scene for Tours 2 and 3 in favour of focussed training sessions and international exposure, Iceni will be making their debut appearance at the new Birmingham venue hungry for another gold medal. But most importantly, they will be eager to cement their guaranteed spot at World Clubs in 2018!
Having taken on a number of extremely talented rookies this year (including some key picks from fellow London based team SYC) I wondered at the start of the season whether Iceni may have some teething issues as new faces settled into familiar systems. Based on their dominant showing at Tour 1 and international performances this season, I’d say things are going fairly well inside the warriors’ camp. Heading stateside for the US Open was a particularly valuable experience in the run up to next year, providing the team with opportunities to test their plays and find out what they might need to do to close out tough games at the pinnacle of Club Women’s Ultimate. It also boosted their confidence, showing that they can deliver a really high standard of play even before reaching their intended peak.
Nationals always forms a key part of Iceni’s season and with everyone expecting them to rip their way through the division to take the top spot, the pressure is certainly all on them to come up with the goods. Looking at the disc skills, game awareness and athletic talent amongst their oh-so-deep roster I have every confidence that they will do this. Taking it one game at a time and focusing on executing their style of play, they will continue to identify the open space, move the disc quickly and sail through the weekend on a cloud of blocks. And whilst we all like a good underdog story I am sure that you, dear reader, are just as excited to watch them dominate as I am!
Iceni will also be taking forward a very exciting element from the US Open, organising two forums at Nationals on Sunday afternoon to discuss gender equity and diversity in the UK Ultimate scene. I am really excited about these events and am sure that they will lead to discourse and action which will help to ensure that all players feel welcomed and encouraged into our community. I also encourage you to attend! Have a look here or speak to an Iceni player on Saturday to find out more.
To summarise ahead of this weekend, I’m going to make a somewhat bold prediction. I’m not known for my attempts to be an Ultimate oracle (I usually leave that type of thing to Sean as he’s better at taking the inevitable abuse that follows) but this time I’m going to go for it. I think this tournament will go exactly to seed. Don’t like it? Think your team is vastly under-seeded? Well, then prove me wrong!
See you on the fields!
Feature image by Claire Baker for the ShowGame.
Aidan Kelly previews this weekend’s Irish Women’s Nationals, and sees a potential upset brewing.
This weekend, Dublin’s fair city is due to welcome female Ultimate players from across the country as it plays host to only the second ever stand-alone Women’s All-Ireland Ultimate Championships.
Before 2016, the event had been packaged alongside its Open counterpart. However, in an effort to promote Women’s Ultimate in the country, as well as removing any conflicts around teams with male coaches having to pick between playing or coaching, the first ever WAIUC was hosted by Uproar in Maynooth last year. The event was a huge success and saw Rebel Ultimate claim their first ever title in the division, seeing off the heavy threat of Dublin Gravity in the final.
The scene has witnessed a number of changes in the last twelve months. Last year we saw seven teams from five clubs, while this time around there are six from three. While Dublin Youth Unicorns, Jabba the Huck and UPELT are out this year, we’ve been struck by a newcomer in the form of BOLT. While it’s obviously sad to see fewer teams in the division, the fact all three clubs entered are fielding two teams each shows the strength in depth that these sides are creating.
With days to go, all early signs point to a repeat of last year’s finale. Both Rebel and Gravity have had strong seasons so far, with the Cork ladies previously travelling over to Tour 2 and the Dubliners fighting it out with some of Europe’s best over at Windmill and Disc Days Cologne during the summer.
Rebel, captained by the current IFDA Female Player of the Year Rosie O’Mahony, will no doubt be hungry to repeat their successes from last season and with the ever-united core of players developed by the dominating varsity team, University College Cork, it will take massive performances from their rivals to steal the crown. The champions also currently hold an impressive record against Gravity, having already beaten them a few weeks back at Munster Munch, an invitational Women’s tournament hosted by the Ireland Junior Women. And, with EUCR also just around the corner, I feel that the girls from ‘The People’s Republic’ will look to use this weekend as a strong base for their preparations.
However, it needs to be said that Gravity, led by the team of Sinead ‘Shinners’ O’Flemming and Kate Boylan, have had a very interesting shake-up this term. Since the collapse of former champions Jabba the Huck, the club has stepped forth as the only Women’s team in Dublin, allowing for many of Jabba’s top players and young college starlets to integrate into the ranks. This added depth, along with the addition of renowned coach Ian French, has meant that Gravigals are as serious a threat to Rebel’s title hopes as they have ever been. Should these two teams make the final, as many may predict, it’s going to be a hell of a showdown between Ireland’s finest. If Gravity can flawlessly execute their game plan when it counts, I can see them bringing the gold medals home to Doyle’s Pub come Saturday night.
Looking to provide a shock are newcomers to the division in the form of BOLT Ultimate. An amalgamation of ladies from PELT (Limerick) and Tribe Ultimate (Galway) in the west, this young club will need to pull out something big to conduct an upset on the big two. The brainchild of seasoned Ireland international Aine Ahern, this thunderous crew are hoping to surge through their opposition and make a name for themselves. While the potential goal of toppling their more established rivals might be out of their reach for year one, I forecast that this storm creeping in from the west will look to show what they’re made of as they descend upon Dublin.
With DP away doing Eurostars things and the rest of our editors and contributors being slightly tied up, we didn’t have an opportunity to get a preview for Open ready before the tournaments. However! Today will be the big qualification day in both the North and the South, so let’s take a look at where we stand.
There are semi-finals and a power pool going on today in Salford. The semis will pit Chevron against Leeds while EMO take on Manchester. Those games should really be a formality if everyone has brought a full squad, and EMO vs Chevron will very likely be the Regional final. All four teams, though, have qualified for Nationals. There are six spots in the North, so the power pool is the really interesting bit.
Alba and The Brown have each carried through unbeaten records against their pool opponents. The Brown have victories over Vision and BAF, while Alba won a squeaker in sudden death against SMOG. Alba play Vision first thing this morning while The Brown get a break. The key game is likely to be The Brown against local rivals SMOG.
If The Brown beat SMOG, they have the inside line to Nationals and their final game against Alba will simply be for seedings in Birmingham. SMOG need to win in order to finish second, too, so the game is a de-facto knockout game (if SMOG can beat BAF this morning, as expected). It should be a spicy one at 11am.
The South division also features semi-finals today with Clapham playing Devon and an all-London game in Fire vs Kapow. All four are through to Nationals and can finish no lower than sixth.
The South has eight spots for Nationals, so the route there is a little more complicated. Reading 1 play Fire 2, and Flump play Brighton Legends, at 9.20am this morning. The winners of those games are guaranteed a spot at Nationals and will make up the final two in the 3-6 playoff bracket with the losing semi-finallists. The losers of those two games go into the brutal 7-10 bracket, where only two teams will qualify. They’ll be joined by the winners of two more games; Brighton City vs Reading 2 and Bristol vs Camden.
Predicting this group is a tough one after the first few games. Realistically, Reading 1 will beat Fire 2. Brighton City should beat Reading 2 and you’d fancy Bristol over Camden. Brighton Legends against Flump is the really close one, with Legends defeating City (who have beaten Flump twice this season) in sudden death yesterday. I’m going to pick Flump despite the accusations of bias that could be pitched my way.
That would leave both Brighton teams, Bristol (who game Clapham a decent game yesterday) and Fire 2 in a bracket with only two qualifiers. It’s a brutal region this year. Brighton City vs Fire 2 would be a fiery game, but I’d see Brighton coming out on top, while Bristol vs Brighton Legends is almost too close to call. I’ll back the experience and give it to Legends, giving us a rematch of the all-Brighton pool game.
Despite their loss yesterday, I’d back City here. That would mean Legends would have to play the winner of a Fire 2 vs Bristol game where I’d favour Fire 2. A game-to-go between Brighton Legends and Fire 2 is another very closely matched encounter. Legends have quite a tight squad and by this point they’ll have played six games in the weekend and three today. I think that would slow them down sufficiently that Fire 2 would take it, but it would likely be very close.
This would make for some tasty pools at Nationals. Clapham would face Ranelagh, SMOG and Devon. Chevron would have Reading, Fire 2 and Manchester. Fire 1 would play EMO, Leeds and Brighton City. PELT would face off against Kapow, Flump and Alba. Clapham’s pool looks to be quite tough in these circumstances, but they’d surely be confident of winning through yet again.
We’ll post something more comprehensive once the results are final and not based on my notoriously terrible predictions. Good luck to everyone today!