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.