Continuing our University previews, Andy Eck takes a look at the still-developing (and oddly named) West Midlands and Wales region.
This region is small, still finding its footing among the more established Ultimate teams of England and Scotland. The most powerful squads hail from the English half of the region, while teams still in development find their home in the Welsh half. While often overlooked, give this region five years and it’ll be as diverse and hotly contested as any. For now, shake ups among the six universities are rare and the big players dominate the scene.
Bath are as close to a dynasty as you can get in the still-young West Midlands and Wales region. Just last year they breezed through their regional matches and placed seventh at nationals. A big loss this year is Oscar Modiano (Ka-Pow!), however, many of their star players remain. Bath’s second indoor team, which qualified for Division One Indoor Nationals two years ago, make up a large portion of this squad. Well drilled, experienced, and comfortable with each other, captain Michael Guise (Great Britain Under-23 Open) will use the team’s chemistry and sheer athleticism to run circles around their opponents. On defence, their teamwork and pressure will prove too much for lesser teams. At first, this looked like Exeter’s year. They had good retention and some solid pickups, but the enduring strength of Bath won’t let them take the top spot so easily.
The team to watch if you want to see some high quality Ultimate.
Predicted finish: first.
Though by no means out of the race, the dominance of Bath and unexpected power of Exeter this season may catch Bristol off guard. Captain Andrew Paterson seemed well aware of this dynamic and predicted a third place finish for his squad, despite finishing second last year. Paterson stressed morale as a key element of the team, citing missing Jamie Lowe’s charisma at socials and tournaments as well as the last-minute retention of musical talent Allan MacLeod as a key loss and pickup, respectively. In practical terms, high levels of morale translate into a team that never gives up. Bristol might go down, but they won’t be out until the whistle blows. Paterson stated very matter-of-factly that on offence Bristol will be looking to score. Specifically, he hopes to put together a team of intelligent players who approach games with smarts. This will also apply on defence. Expect a team with a wide variety of ever-shifting strategies to attempt to surprise and confuse opponents. Bristol haven’t significantly weakened this year, but simply not weakening likely won’t be enough to overtake Bath and may not be enough to keep pace with Exeter.
The team likely to have the most exuberant sideline.
Predicted finish: third.
Exeter begin the season in a strong position, having retained most of last year’s first team. The most crucial of these remaining veterans are last year’s Men’s captain Christopher Ross (Devon), current club captain Luke Gregory (Devon), and Men’s captain Sean Jagger (Devon). They are further bolstered by a couple of American pickups; it remains to be seen how much of a difference they’ll make on the pitch. Hopefully, they’ll be able to pick up the slack left by the departure of Mike Forrest and Stephen Strickland (both Devon players as well). Exeter have always been a blisteringly speedy team, and that isn’t going to change this year. On offence, they’ll use that advantage to great effect: a single break will be devastating as one completed pass leads to three more with no chance for the defence to reset. With energy and pace to spare, it’s no surprise that the team will be running a hard man defensive system. They have their sights set on Bath this year, but Bristol will nip at their heels, ready to take advantage if Exeter stumble even a little.
The team most likely to experience an upset, in their favour or not.
Predicted finish: second.
Falmouth (AKA Kernow Ultimate, AKA FXU) is a team that is often overshadowed by Exeter, since the two share a jointly managed campus. This year, however, they’re stepping into the daylight to face all comers. Falmouth are a classic University team with a group of experienced handlers and cutters holding things together with newer players filling in the gaps made from people graduating. The biggest loss this year is Chris Redd (Devon) who was not only a playmaker on the pitch, but coached the team as well. Captain Robin Ellis-Cockcroft (Devon) plans to focus his team on defence, particularly zone, as the skill disparity between players is not as apparent and mismatches are less likely to occur. He hopes this will create an abundance of turnovers to compensate for the ever popular huck and D strategy Falmouth plan to utilize, turnover heavy itself.
The team with the most personable captain.
Predicted finish: fourth.
Expect a weakened Swansea to under-perform last year’s results. A victory against Southampton (Skunks) and an upset win against Cardiff netted them fourth place. This means the team will be fighting to avoid relegation. They’re smarting from the loss of veteran players Jacques Laloe (Brighton City) and Jack Bailey (Blue Arse Flies or BAF). Swansea have kept seasoned cutters Owen Payne (BAF) and James Lear (Storm), but are left with only a single core handler in captain Thawn Hatzaw (BAF). Swansea will rely on him to start their offence and create momentum. On defence, look for attempts to create unanticipated turnovers with a poachy man and zones tailored to the weather. With team harmony and a solid crop of beginners, Swansea may surprise us yet.
The team to see grow over the season.
Predicted finish: fifth.
A true mystery of the season, no one seems to have a good read on Winchester. When asked, most captains expected Winchester to finish in the bottom three of the league. However, captain Daniel Fallon (Hampshire) was confident that his team would strongly contest Bath for the top spot. We’ll have to wait until the end of the season to see if he’s confident for a reason. Able to change gears to suit any situation, Winchester look to play a clean, patterned stack in all its variants on offence. Defensively, the team will zone, hoping to use the cup to smother opposing teams’ offence. Fallon asserted that one of Winchester’s strengths is in having players that are comfortable in any role, be that handler, cutter, or something in between. This means that any player can be a threat from any position. That explosive offensive potential might be just what they need to crack through the tough teams in the league.
The team to watch if you love wild cards.
Predicted finish: sixth.
1st – Bath
2nd – Exeter
3rd – Bristol
4th – Falmouth
5th – Swansea
6th – Winchester
Though there are some strong teams in this region of six, there remains a wide gulf between the top three and the bottom three. The barriers around these groupings are quite rigid and for any team to fall from first to third and fourth to sixth or vice versa would be a huge shock. With that said, let’s take a look at each group on their own in a little more detail.
TOP THREE: Bath, Bristol, and Exeter – oh my! My money’s on Bath to take it again this year, but it’s nowhere near a lock. They will be heavily contested by Exeter. If Bath don’t come out firing on all cylinders from the start, I can see Exeter building up a nice lead that carries them through to a victory. Bristol vs. Bath is likely to be more clear cut, with Bristol struggling to overcome Bath matching and exceeding them man for man. Again, however, carelessness invites disaster as Bristol are still a regional powerhouse; they may be able to develop a winning strategy. The Bristol and Exeter match will likely be the most exciting, tense game of the season. The outcome may be decided by the conditions on the pitch, as Bristol will have trained hard to take advantage of adverse conditions. High winds and rain may be just enough to allow Bristol to put the game away before Exeter can adjust their strategies. On a clear day, expect a close first fifteen minutes, then watch Exeter pull away as the Bristol boys find themselves hard pressed to keep up.
BOTTOM THREE: A group of teams with good individual players, but not enough depth to carry them into the top three. Unfortunately, two of these teams will be relegated, meaning the stakes for these squads are incredibly high. Winchester is an enigma this season that could place anywhere, but they’ll have to prove themselves against Falmouth and Swansea first. Falmouth seem to be the team to beat in this half of the region. Falmouth vs. Swansea is looking like the game that will decide which of the teams face relegation. Advantage goes to Falmouth on strategy alone. With only a single core handler left to them, Swansea will have few answers to a huck and D offence. In the event of a turnover, Swansea will face a zone defence with their backs to their own goal line. The pressure could be difficult to overcome. Winchester’s relative anonymity could work to their advantage as Falmouth and Swansea scramble to properly identify key players and adjust to any strategies they may have. As it stands, however, they’ll need to push hard to place fourth or better in this region.