UKU Nationals 2017 – Women’s

Hannah Pendlebury returns from WFDF World Games fame to help with further Women’s coverage of UKU Nationals in Birmingham.

After seven years on the beautiful south coast, UK Nationals has finally changed its relationship status to “It’s Complicated” and split from Wide Lane. It has instead packed its bags for the grizzly midlands, leaving an orphaned Facebook page and Twitter handle in its wake.

Whilst it seems that the stats and fantasy league tables have also been left adrift back in Southampton, this year’s competition did remember to pack a punch in terms of exciting opportunities for the Women’s division. Inside the UKU suitcases heading to Birmingham this weekend are; a guaranteed World Club Championships 2018 spot, two bids for the forthcoming European Club Championships and nine live-streamed games – so plenty of glory still to play for.

Whilst we will be getting a change of scenery, there is one thing that I don’t expect to be different about Women’s Nationals this year. That being – it’s really a battle for second place. I know you should never say never and I mean absolutely no disrespect to any of the teams attending, but Iceni just look indomitable at this level. But more about them later… For now, let’s see who else will be battling it out for a shot at Euros!

Seed #8: Reading

Reading Women have had a phenomenal season so far this year. As a club better known for their elite Mixed squad, 2017 marked their third year entering the Women’s division, with two very capable teams attending each Tour event. The final rankings of those squads (ninth and tenth respectively) show an obvious depth of female talent, with an especially impressive underdog story in the shape of their second team who were seeded at the very bottom of the division back in June.

Having chosen to take an even-split approach earlier on in the season, Tour 3 gave us an opportunity to see what the upper half of the Reading roster are capable of. As it turned out, that was some pretty high quality Ultimate! Reading 1 finished sixth overall in Birmingham, losing just one game all weekend against overall third-ranked Hydra and securing some pretty dominant wins against Chaos, SMOG and LLLeeds en route to the 5v6.

Whilst I wouldn’t put money on Reading being in the top four by the end of Sunday without their Mixed superstars, they are no strangers to starting at the bottom and battling their way up. They certainly seem to have developed a supportive culture which entices top experienced players and brand new talents alike: their roster features a savvy handler in her 18th year of playing, a cutter in her first year of Ultimate (this will be her fourth outdoor tournament ever), plus a little bit of everything in between!

With the spread of abilities in their ranks, Reading remain a bit of a wildcard going into Nationals. Either way you can be sure that they will execute some confident Ultimate this weekend and maybe they will snag another spirit title to their already impressive haul for the season… Stay tuned to find out!

Seed #7: Chaos

After initially missing the boat on entry to Women’s Nationals this year (much of their roster had Mixed Regionals commitments) Chaos won the game of ‘fastest finger first’ to bag themselves a golden ticket to Birmingham in their debut season. And what a season it has been!

As a brand-new entry to the Women’s Tour circuit, there seemed to be a certain amount of ‘always the bridesmaid, never in the power pool’ when it came to Chaos’ seeding this year. Although they had a great vision at the start of the season with two dedicated coaches and plenty of talent on their roster, injuries and squad inconsistencies seemed to prove an Achilles heel. Whilst they certainly had some great games this year (and developed some gritty rivalries along the way) the results would suggest that they didn’t quite manage to maintain their magic throughout an entire weekend, leaving them unable to climb very far up the rankings.
With the honeypot that is London Ultimate seeming to throw together a new team every few years involving largely the same collection of faces, I hope Chaos put down some roots and stick around for a few more seasons. (Stay together for the kit ladies! It’s so cool!) In all seriousness though, Chaos will no doubt be looking forward to testing themselves against the very top end of UK Women’s Ultimate, since the schedule kept them apart for much of the domestic season. They will also surely be keen for another in a long line of matches against LLLeeds, whom they knocked out of the top eight back at Tour 1 with an epic 20 minute sudden-death point!

However, in order to rise above their seventh seed Chaos will need to handle some significant roster shuffling, with just 11 of their original 21 squad members present at this event. One of the handiest of the new faces will surely be Sarah Melvin of Ireland Mixed, who comes highly recommended from coach Conor ‘Hogi’ Hogan as “one of Europe’s best players in 2015, easily”. Only time will tell if Chaos can utilise players like Melvin to make an impact on Nationals and end their first season on a high.

Seed #6: Rebel

Rebel are one of my favourite teams to play against. Not only are they friendly and superbly spirited, but I love their gutsy, huck-heavy playing style. Hailing from Cork, they make up the Irish contingent for the EUCR-West region.

Although Rebel made an appearance at Tour 2 this year, their roster at Nationals will be much more akin to their team from last season. This makes a great deal of sense, as rather quirkily their qualification for UK Nationals 2017 is based on winning the All-Ireland Championships back in 2016. This was a great achievement but sadly a feat they couldn’t replicate this year, losing to Dublin-based Gravity 15-7 after the ladies in green took an early lead and Rebel struggled to adjust.

Rebel dedicated a lot of time and resources to developing their team in 2016, attending a high number of foreign tournaments – including all three Tour events. Whilst this was a great experience, it has proved unsustainable for the club as a whole, so Rebel will be coming to Birmingham a little less well-prepared than they may have been if money were no object! But with a reliable core of players who are willing to work hard for each other and who ranked second overall for the 2016 season, I wouldn’t count them out for a serious shot at semis if they can bring their A-game.

Seed #5: LLLeeds

LLLeeds have had a solidly consistent but fairly muted season so far, finishing either eighth or ninth at each Tour event for an overall ranking of seventh. However, taking a sneaky peek at their roster on Ultimate Central, this is one of the tastier looking LLLeeds squads I have seen in a little while! Add in some extra spice in the fact that nearly 50% of their roster are only playing Sunday and suddenly you have a potential recipe for some interesting results indeed…

As I have mentioned in earlier previews, LLLeeds are a club with a great legacy. This includes the accolade of being the last team to beat Iceni in a UK Nationals final back in 2010 – though I doubt we will see a repeat of that particular performance this year. Whereas in more recent seasons they have brought out the big guns for Nationals to sneak up the rankings and snag the odd last-minute Euros spot, the increased overall strength within the division will certainly make this a harder task for Birmingham.

Although the change of venues should provide some slightly gustier conditions which will suit LLLeeds’ throwing prowess, I would expect them to hang tough against the top four but fall just short of taking any scalps in pool play. This would of course lock them out of the final, but with their reinforcements arriving on Sunday morning there would still be a route to the 3v4 if they can replay the magic of seasons past! I for one am looking forward to seeing what they can pull out of the hat in Birmingham.

Seed #4: Brighton

I have to admit, Brighton really surprised me at Tour 3. With a comparatively miniscule squad of just nine players (the commentator’s dream) I had made the call that whilst the majority of their squad was fit as hell from Beach Worlds prep, they would fall to fatigue and tumble out of the top bracket. Oh boy, was I wrong.

The last time they were in Birmingham, Brighton played the schedule like absolute champions. By going hard in their early pool games on Saturday and posting up some impressive points differences, they secured themselves second seed and a two-game Sunday. They then went on to take a commanding early lead against SYC in their semi-final, though they eventually lost in sudden death as their legs and brains finally started to falter… But not for long, finishing out the weekend with a 15-8 win over the GB U24 Women.

Looking at Brighton’s roster for Nationals you will spot eight of the nine players who last made the trip up to Birmingham, with the singular loss of Avril Hunter to Reading Mixed. They have also bolstered their ranks with a few extra pairs of legs, including some younger players by way of a long-established connection with Kent’s Ultimate scene and a few home-grown names too.

Naturally Brighton will hope to play the schedule in their favour by winning their pool on Saturday, avoiding the semi-final matchup against Iceni on Sunday morning. However, taking down Nice Bristols will be no mean feat – and it is yet to be seen whether the new pairs of legs will be kill or cure for this tightly-knit Brighton unit. But if they can peak at Nationals as planned and recreate some of the dishy throws and sensational grabs they had at Tour 3 I wouldn’t put it past Brighton to cause an upset. Definitely one to watch!

Alice Beeching under a lot of pressure from SYC. Photo by Claire Baker for the ShowGame.

Seed #3: SYC

Despite their considerable roster changes coming into this season SYC have performed very well, earning the top overall ranking in the Tour standings for 2017. They undoubtedly have plenty of athleticism across the board and some extremely handy international additions who have made a real impact. Tessa Bertozzi, Nina Hintner and Amanda Fung all made huge contributions in the SYC games which I had the pleasure of watching at Tour 3 – both on offence and on defence.

However what SYC will have needed to do since July and now is iron out their unforced errors. In both of their Sunday games at Tour 3 they came out with intense defensive pressure, but initially failed to convert off the back of a fairly messy offence peppered with simple mistakes. If they want to push for the very top spots this weekend, SYC will need to make sure they come out clean from the start. Hopefully under the watchful eyes of coaches James Burbidge and Marie-Sophie Nguyen-Tu, this is something they can achieve.

In terms of the schedule SYC might feel a little hard done by, being seeded third considering their overall finish over the Tour season. However, this actually works to their advantage as they will safely clash against Iceni in pool play and are therefore guaranteed to avoid being knocked out by the warriors during semi-finals. Though that is not to say that they couldn’t be bested to the final by another team instead! Provided that all goes as per the predicted seeding, SYC’s semi will in fact be a rematch from their Nationals 2016 semi-final against Nice Bristols. Whilst the ladies in red took the win last time, this will likely be an intense game and by no means a foregone conclusion. If SYC can come out at their very best I wouldn’t discount them advancing to the final clinching that all-important Euros spot.

Seed #2: Nice Bristols

I said it at the very beginning of this season and I’ll say it again now – I think of all the teams attending Nationals, Nice Bristols have the best shot at beating Iceni. Watching their full-strength squad take the Tour 3 title back in July, it was clear that Bristol have a seriously deep roster which combines both experience behind the disc and sheer athletic power downfield. This is not at all surprising when you consider just how stacked this team is with international level players, with 14 of their 23 players this weekend having represented their home nation at one point or another.

Having turned down their ticket to Euros last year, it would seem that Bristol are more focussed this season, presumably hoping to place high enough to secure a spot at the forthcoming World Club Championships in Cincinnati next year. However, this goal did not prevent them from taking their usual approach to the Tour season as a whole. As in 2016, they dedicated their first two events to developing their up and coming players whilst some of their more experienced teammates attended various ‘real life’ commitments.

Whilst you can’t argue with Iceni’s approach of pocketing the best existing players and pushing them to even higher levels as a model for success, Bristol’s home-grown approach gives them a unique edge of that you have to respect. Aside from the odd Aussie and northerner here and there, the overwhelming majority of their roster are born and bred west country players which suggests excellent connections and speaks volumes to their ability to retain talent.

Even though Nice Bristols have my vote for the ‘best of the rest’ this year, it will still be a very steep mountain to climb if they want to claim their first National Championship. Bristol’s offence at Tour 3 was undoubtedly effective, but their hopes will surely be dashed unless, like SYC, they can tidy things up and convert their blocks more consistently and efficiently. But if they can keep their eyes on the prize and a hold onto their second place seeding until Sunday afternoon at least they can look forward to a small advantage: at least they’ll be used to the double-incline upwind downwind conditions of pitch one already!

Seed #1: Iceni

After taking a hiatus from the UK domestic scene for Tours 2 and 3 in favour of focussed training sessions and international exposure, Iceni will be making their debut appearance at the new Birmingham venue hungry for another gold medal. But most importantly, they will be eager to cement their guaranteed spot at World Clubs in 2018!

Having taken on a number of extremely talented rookies this year (including some key picks from fellow London based team SYC) I wondered at the start of the season whether Iceni may have some teething issues as new faces settled into familiar systems. Based on their dominant showing at Tour 1 and international performances this season, I’d say things are going fairly well inside the warriors’ camp. Heading stateside for the US Open was a particularly valuable experience in the run up to next year, providing the team with opportunities to test their plays and find out what they might need to do to close out tough games at the pinnacle of Club Women’s Ultimate. It also boosted their confidence, showing that they can deliver a really high standard of play even before reaching their intended peak.

Nationals always forms a key part of Iceni’s season and with everyone expecting them to rip their way through the division to take the top spot, the pressure is certainly all on them to come up with the goods. Looking at the disc skills, game awareness and athletic talent amongst their oh-so-deep roster I have every confidence that they will do this. Taking it one game at a time and focusing on executing their style of play, they will continue to identify the open space, move the disc quickly and sail through the weekend on a cloud of blocks. And whilst we all like a good underdog story I am sure that you, dear reader, are just as excited to watch them dominate as I am!

Iceni will also be taking forward a very exciting element from the US Open, organising two forums at Nationals on Sunday afternoon to discuss gender equity and diversity in the UK Ultimate scene. I am really excited about these events and am sure that they will lead to discourse and action which will help to ensure that all players feel welcomed and encouraged into our community. I also encourage you to attend! Have a look here or speak to an Iceni player on Saturday to find out more.

To summarise ahead of this weekend, I’m going to make a somewhat bold prediction. I’m not known for my attempts to be an Ultimate oracle (I usually leave that type of thing to Sean as he’s better at taking the inevitable abuse that follows) but this time I’m going to go for it. I think this tournament will go exactly to seed. Don’t like it? Think your team is vastly under-seeded? Well, then prove me wrong!

See you on the fields!

Feature image by Claire Baker for the ShowGame.