Josh Coxon Kelly tells us the story ahead of the one the biggest Women’s Tour events at London Calling 2016.
The UK Women’s division featured only six teams at National level in 2004, and in 2015 was represented by an average of 27 teams at each Tour event. In a sport as young as ours, growth of player base is of crucial importance as it ratchets up the tension throughout the team-list, pushing those at the top to work ever-harder and raising the level nationwide and beyond. It’s encouraging, then, to see London Calling begin 2016 with a continuation of this healthy state of the sport as 26 teams feature in the Women’s division, with two waiting list teams unlucky to not make the competition.
Heading the seedings is Iceni, and as in previous years the question of who, if anyone, will threaten them will be one of the first posed by those looking at the top level teams. Iceni’s dominance in the domestic and European Ultimate scenes in the years of late are well-known by now. Ceding only two Tour titles since 2008 (2014 and 2015, both seasons seeing the team place in the top eight after entering and winning two out of three events), the club has a streak of five consecutive European golds and counting – a formidable feat that outshines any European team in recent history of the sport. Whilst GB preparations will not have weakened the London side this year, the looming WUGC draws to the mix formidable competition in the shape of GB Masters and Mockingjays, who feature much of the Irish Women’s team on their roster. Both of these teams met in the final of the Tour Iceni didn’t attend last year, Tour 2, with Masters then losing out to Iceni at Tour 3. With pre-season matchups between GB Women and Masters standing at 1-1 so far (GB Women getting revenge from an earlier friendly loss with sudden-death victory at Tom’s Tourney), both of these ‘international’ additions to the domestic scene pose a genuine threat to Iceni’s claim to the throne in London.
Development is still a central concern for the highest levels, however. Mara Alperin described this year as a developing year for Iceni, in which the team has recruited heavily (to 28 strong), and have focused on all players’ fundamentals in their initial development phase (up until Tour 1), looking to transition into a competition phase after Worlds. This year’s WUGC squad has also approached 2016 with development in mind. Jenna Thompson explained that:
“Early this year we met together with the leaders of club teams in the top five and identified areas of development across both GB and UK club women. This year we have been working together to support the development of these key skills by utilising the strengths of the current GB women, experienced UK women and support staff to share drills and resources that can be utilised at practices.’
As such the choice was made for GB to not enter Tour, as Jenna commented: “I think it’s important for UK wide women’s development that the GB ladies are playing tour with their club teams.’ Competition will never be lacking at the top end of this tournament, but it is encouraging to see running alongside this an urgency to keep the newer and grassroots teams engaged and benefitting from the elite experience these teams gain each year.
A similar approach can be seen from the Irish teams, with Dublin Women’s Ultimate operating for exactly this purpose of developing the sport at all levels. Rebel Ultimate had long planned their entrance to the UK Women’s division, and as such the Irish WUGC team sees players feature in London this weekend on both the Mockingjays and Rebel rather than a single entrance of Ireland. Grainne McCarthy says of the Mockingjay’s entrance:
‘Tour is about spending more time with each other on the field and polishing some of our plays.There are strong Women’s teams at Tour with a variety of styles so I’m excited to be pushed by them. Tour is also about building our mental game for Worlds. We have had plenty of close games that we need to be ready for, and that ability to bridge over a drop or a turn and bring it back is crucial.’
The team has been preparing internationally already, with close games against Austria and France. They’re pumped to take on more high calibre teams and see it all as beneficial competition as they aim for a top eight finish (and as high as possible!) in June. The proximity of the tournament brings excitement, and the geographical closeness for all UK and Irish teams comes with its own excitement that is firmly in mind with the Irish team. Grainne mentions: ‘Having [WUGC] in London has given not just the Women’s team but I think all the Irish teams the opportunity to put forward every athlete that is good enough to represent Ireland and I’m thrilled’.
The two Irish contenders will get the chance to test each other early this weekend as they face off in the same pool, amongst Crown Jewels and Hydra, a new outfit that’s risen out of the two most recent U23 cycles. The team’s lack of history may have resulted in an under-seeding and so could see a really tough pool with exciting games early on in the tournament. Iceni should hold on to top seed without much trouble in the first round of play, but Punt, JR and Brighton may throw some upsets early on between themselves. Punt is a team with historic strength, JR will surely be benefitting from a stellar mixed season and Brighton have been putting a strong focus on development and will also doubtless still benefit from one of the country’s longest standing and largest local scenes.
A similar three-way battle may take place in GB Masters’ pool, where LLLeeds will be bringing a squad with many new faces looking to gain club experience. Swift and Vurve may see them as an opportunity as a result. SYC and Bristol will be a familiar but fierce early matchup in their pool, where SYC will be hoping to score an early win with the Bristol team losing some of their most longstanding players to the Masters squad. Bristol have been strong as well as development focused in recent years, and will be looking to climb higher later in their season upon the return of their Masters players. SYC come in after placing sixth at Euros in 2015, and will have their sights set as always on semis and hopefully beyond. Relentless and Manchester bring a Northern battle to this pool. Manchester’s unsuccessful attempt to enter a second team suggests that the firsts may be bolstered and looking to overcome Relentless, who will be tough to overcome if they can continue their history of high level connections forged through various GB programs. In the pools outside of the top 16, Dragon Knights look the most out of place after consistently placing in the top 10 at each event last year. These pools, at five strong each, will look to show the fruit of the many nationwide development initiatives already mentioned as they look to cause upsets and gain that priceless higher-level experience. With close seedings between them, these games will be close from the start, and provide early chances for geo-outfits such as Devon, Reading and Glasgow as well as many of the second teams at Tour.
With Worlds just around the corner, the excitement of elite level Ultimate is in everyone’s mind. The question of how domestic teams will fare against the rest of the world after their latest cycle of fitness, drilling, training and competition will never cease to entertain as all countries push each other year-on-year. As crucial to the performance of the advance guard of the top teams though is the competition they face throughout the season, and the insurance that this competition will be consistently strong, and improving. All will be playing to win, but all will be hoping that the work done in development leads to the tight games and upsets that spur the sport forward. Here’s hoping that London Calling has more than its share of this excitement. As always – best of luck to all attending!
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