Josh Coxon Kelly previews the A Tour for Open Tour 1.
The 2015 Open Tour season sees the entrance of multiple non-club squads, as teams and coaches prepare for international tournaments at the Senior, Masters and U23 levels. These teams themselves are unknown quantities that could be cohesive units of all-stars, and just as easily dramatic coaching experiments as team managers have the option of using the strong domestic scene either as a proving ground to test ideas, grow new connections or simply as reliable competition in the lead up to the season peak. Playing for their national team will imbue these players with a sense of pride, but this lift will be equally seated with the weight carried by pressure to live up to their newly earned accolades. As well as the new teams that these squads present, the international tournament year will have an extended effect by removing many players from the club teams that make up the traditional names of Open Tour. Naturally, the conscripted players often hold prominent positions in the clubs they are leaving whether as leaders, playmakers, tactical advisors or a combination of all of these roles. As such all teams will be learning on the pitch as they play, as selected representatives forge on-pitch bonds, and newer and less experienced players answer their club’s call to step up.
This year sees a further progression towards the Tour being used as a training ground for the high level teams, with the subsequent result of Nationals gaining more significance as a true show of competition between UK Clubs. Clapham have been subsumed into the two GB squads, who will enter the first two tour events but miss the third for a trip to America and the US Open. Given the strength shown by Clapham at WUCC 2014, the addition of key players from across the country as part of GB Open leaves two very formidable squads, who may not have sights on a tour title, but will certainly be looking to make up the finals of the first two events. Chevron will be present at all three events but will likely feature a heavily depleted squad, unable to field a full strength team until Nationals. They will have recruited strongly to deal with this, but all the same Tour results will not necessarily be indicative of the full strength of this team.
Fire’s splitting of squads could prove a strengthening or fragility depending on the timing and location of their better players, but in itself shows a prioritisation of development over Tour titles. Strict selection rulings between the two squads show a professional approach, and along with a high squad retention and the return of James Baron from Clapham suggest that Fire are not to be counted lightly. EMO should be able to hold consistency throughout the season and may see themselves rise to the top of the ranking if they can snatch some important wins against other high seeds. Brighton have contributed to GB, but with their Hex style being brought out in undoubtedly its most refined form yet will be looking to trouble any top team. Ranelagh and Rebel are not affected by roster loss in this way, and will have no qualms in taking an upset given the chance.
As well as the Irish the GB roster shake-up may also benefit the teams that have previously hovered around the top 8, who lose fewer to GB programs. KaPow, Cambridge and Glasgow fall into this group, but Manchester is probably the best example of such a team. Manchester benefit from regular trainings led by high level players (captain and ex-GB Junior Coach/Chevron player Dale Walker is joined by ex-Chevron captain and long time teammate James Jackson), and a competitive trial process to boot. Brazenly calling themselves ‘Manchester’s finest’ in an unsubtle dig at their Fog Lane rivals, this is clearly a team looking to champion their home-grown talent, and one that are not going to over-respect anyone who stands in their way as they do so. Seeded second in group A and seventh overall, Rebel Ultimate stand the highest chance of being this team, and along with NEO and Glasgow and Devon contribute to an exciting pool in which the second ticket to quarters is certainly not yet clear.
GB U23’s results at warmup tournaments suggest a squad that is not quite of the caliber that threatened for finals berths in 2013, and the loss of star players to the Open teams will further hurt this team. However with Julia ‘Jools’ Murray at the helm we can expect a well conditioned and serious group of athletes. Always an exciting team, GB U23 are at home in arguably the most unstable group with themselves, GB Masters, and Chevron all jostling for the top two seeds. Pool C is an all-domestic affair and will likely tell much about how the rest of the season and Nationals will play out. Leeds have lost strength to Manchester in recent years, and may be fighting hard against familiar faces on Sunday to retain A Tour presence for London Calling. If they are joined in this fight by the likes of Birmingham and Reading as seedings suggest, the benefit of the latter two’s participation in Mixed Tour may prove crucial.
Everything points towards an all GB Open final, not only due to the strength of the Clapham squad and those that have been added to it, but also due to the significant gaps left by these very players in the remaining competitive teams. Manchester could make quarters with a strong pool performance but are unlikely to go further at this event. Whilst GB teams won’t be included in the final rankings for Tour, their presence will provide problems for teams that will be used to playing semi-finals. There isn’t enough room for all of these teams in the top 4, and along with the many squads who will be hunting to upturn the seedings this makes for an exciting tour even if we are faced with an all GB final. But then of course there’s no reason to say that has to be the case…