Sean Colfers previews the Mixed Division at 2016 Nationals
Mixed Nationals is the pinnacle of the season, serving as the qualifier for the European Championships. The difference between this tournament and the simultaneous Open and Women’s events is that the event comes months after the Mixed season finished – Mixed Tour 3 was won by Thundering Herd over three months ago in Cheltenham. That break means that all eight teams contesting Nationals are essentially starting a new season, trying to rebuild cohesion and re-establish connections.
That dynamic is especially true since there have been a number of squad changes across the teams. Some have either gained or lost players to Open and Women’s, whereas some have added Great Britain players absent for the Tour season. The field overall looks the strongest in Nationals history, potentially as part of the ramping up for WUCC qualification next year, with all eight teams finishing in the top ten during the 2016 Mixed Tour season.
Enough preamble; let’s take a look at the teams.
This group pits the reigning national champions against three very different opponents. Reading had an uneven Tour season and suffered from missing players, notably handler Sam Gunbie, at various points. However, they are at almost full strength in Southampton. They are missing experienced cutter Mark Bignal but have picked up a number of players to make up for that. James Freeman, a stalwart of Great Britain Mixed, Fire and Bear Cavalry, has joined the team along with former Clapham player Andy Mitchell. They have also added Fi Rae, a strong defender from Relentless, and have Great Britain Mixed player Ania Godbold back in the fold. The squad looks very, very good and it seems that they are the team to beat in this pool.
Brighton Breezy could challenge however if they can pick up where they left off on Tour. They finished second overall to JR and were a model of consistency throughout the season – third (outside of the national teams) at Tour 1, second and Tour 2 and second again at Tour 3. They suffered a tough second day at last weekend’s Golden Cup in Dublin, finishing eighth after some very narrow defeats in knockouts. They have a squad that’s played together for a long time, and talent at every level – handlers Felix Shardlow and Hannah Brew can make every throw in the book and cutters like James Wotherspoon and Robbie Haines have the ability to make big plays on both O and D. Their experience and familiarity will be a weapon for them and they will rightly feel good about their chances to grab a spot at Euros.
SMOG are the third seed in this pool. They’ve had a spectacular year given their relative youth as a club – fifth overall in Mixed and ninth in Open may well make them the most balanced club around. They’ve lost a few players since Mixed Tour, most notably Conrad Wilson who has joined his brother on Clapham. However, they’ve retained players like Harry Glasspool, a Glasgow cutter and one of SMOG’s leaders, and have added GB Mixed speedster Callum Spiers. Additionally, they’ve benefitted from Relentless’ absence more than most – GB under-23 player Tessa Hunt joins the fold to play with teammates Tiff Anderson, Katie Ackerley and talented handler Lucy Hyde. This is a young team, but it is packed with ability. Their games against Reading and Brighton will be close and will go a long way in testing how far they can actually go in this tournament. If this team stays together for a year or two they could be challengers in Europe, let alone in the UK.
Birmingham enter the tournament as the lowest seed – a reflection of the strength in depth since in previous years they would be real contenders for a semi-final spot. They have a lot of experience together, with the same core of players playing Mixed and Open for the club and several of the women playing together for Punt. Players like handler Marius Hutcheson and cutter Carl Bullingham have built chemistry for years, along with Lola Denham, Emma Hayward and Rebecca Bullingham. They’ve added sisters Jen and Carla Link who will help, but given the strength of the competition overall they may find it tough to reach the semis.
Black Eagles are the top seed in this pool following their second-place finish last season. They have a similar looking squad for this tournament, though one key difference for them is their relative paucity of female players. Last season they had eight women on the team; this year it’s only five. They have added Lucy Barnes, a GB Mixed player, but have lost her international teammate Niamh Delaney as well as GB Masters players Linda Gilmour and Frances Dathan. They retain some excellent players – Barnes and Michael Noblett were on the GB Mixed team this summer, Rob Anderson has GB Open experience and several others have been on Black Eagles teams that have been successful in the past – but their numbers might count against them (and I don’t mean the Roman numerals). They have the talent, but I don’t know if they have the legs to make the final.
JR will be Black Eagles’ key rival. They won the Tour series this year and have managed to hold on to many of their best players from that squad. Captain George Hudson will be the key handler on their riskier line, throwing to receivers like Ally Lead, Rich Fenn, Cat Gale and Luke Tobiasiewicz, while Rob Coddington and Charlotte Kennedy will be on the steadier line alongside EMO squad players Alec Buchanan and Rupal Ghelani. It’s an approach that has worked well for them, one line taking more chances and the other working the disc diligently. Both lines play D and O and both can get the job done whether slotting in an O point or getting a block. All around, their depth is impressive and with 21 players they have plenty of legs. Confidence will be high after their success already this season and they’re gunning for a spot in Euros. They’ll be tough to stop.
Thundering Herd enjoyed a resurgent season on Tour, finishing third – their highest finish since second in 2011. A win at Tour 3 would usually have generated some valuable momentum but, with the huge gap, they’ll have to start from scratch like everyone else. Some ill-timed injuries and defections to Open and Women’s have affected Herd, who put in an uneven display at Golden Cup and finished 11th. Captains Tom Jackson and Chung Leung will be marshalling the O and D lines respectively, while Herd stalwarts like Charlie Galloway, Alex Watts and Grainne McCarthy bring experience at this level. They will be without O line cutter Martyn Brown, who’ll be playing with Fire, while fellow cutter Quinn ‘Chucky’ Kennett is still recovering from an ankle injury. They have pulled out performances above what seemed likely this season already, and it looks as though they may have to do so again to reach the semis.
The final team in this competition are Cambridge. They have fallen off since their 6th place finish at WUCC in 2014, but they retain some good players and a lot of cohesion and familiarity – many of these players have played with Cambridge Mixed or Open teams for years, and most even at university level. Nick Wong returns after some time away with Great Britain Mixed and will control the offence, while they have other players with top level experience like Kiwi cutter Tom White and former Iceni player Eleanor Nicholson. They finished Tour in seventh place overall, but in a strong group and a tough overall competition, they too may find things tough going.
So, we come to the point of the exercise. This will be a tough, bruising competition. Some of these teams have stacked their squads and are really aiming for success in Europe, and with the quality in the division the two qualifiers look primed to achieve just that.
In Pool A, it’s going to be a dog fight between the top three teams. Reading have experience, they have a big, talented squad and they have some excellent pick-ups. They train regularly and that could be the difference. Brighton and SMOG are both very capable of beating Reading, but if I was backed into a corner I’d take the reigning champions to win the pool. SMOG have talent but Brighton have the know-how – it’s really on a razor’s edge. Personally I’d back SMOG to take a nail-biter in the last game of the day, relegating Brighton to the 5-8 bracket, but honestly no result here would surprise me other than Birmingham qualifying for the semis (even though they are really good!).
In Pool B, things look a little more clear-cut. JR are favourites, and if Black Eagles can overcome their numbers disadvantage they should have enough to push Herd all the way. Their vertical, aggressive style of offence is the polar opposite of Herd’s more drilled system which could make a difference. That game opens up the event for both teams and it’s likely to decide the second semi-finalist from this pool.
To the semis, I think JR can beat whoever comes second in Pool A. Both SMOG and Brighton have weak points that JR can exploit, while they might find it difficult to poke holes in JR’s solid two-way game. Reading against Black Eagles would, I think, be a similar scenario where Reading’s ability to throw out fresh players, particularly female players, could make the key difference.
So the final, in my eyes, will be a match-up between the reigning Tour champions and the reigning national champions. That has all the makings of a classic, and will hopefully be a game good enough to mark what is the highest quality Mixed division in UK Nationals history. It’s probably a coin flip in terms of the result, but if I were a betting man I’d be looking very carefully at Reading’s odds.
Good luck to everyone in Southampton (particularly my teammates) and fingers crossed the competition hits the level of quality and excitement that I’m predicting, though with the wind and rain that’s expected on Saturday that might be wishful thinking. Pack a coat, everyone.
Featured photo by Andrew Moss