Andrew Eck preview the next region for us – the West Midlands and Wales super-division.
With Bath’s surprise second place finish at Nationals, I expect increased interest in this region. They’ve proven that the teams here aren’t walkovers. So what’s new? There are two new teams who’ve gone through the trials of relegation and worked their way into the top league. UWE (University of West England) and Southampton will be chomping at the bit trying to land in the top four and avoid a slide into the lower league. The others will jockey between themselves for the three Division 1 slots, trying to avoid slides of their own. So much so standard, but every season’s a new game with the potential for surprise.
Last season, I wrote that my home University, Swansea, would lose to Falmouth and get relegated. When that didn’t happen, I stuck to my guns and predicted a fairly lacklustre performance at Nationals. They over performed that. I tell you, it’s a bit awkward at trainings when a consistent rallying cry is ‘Prove Andrew wrong!’. But the kicker was Bath. Most teams did better than expected against them, Exeter came within striking distance of a victory. I don’t want to insult them, but they looked weak! So I said they’d come in at a retrospectively ludicrous 7th or so at Nationals.
So I’m not great at predictions [Ed’s note – welcome to the club.] Luckily, there’s a lot of other stuff to talk about. Like Southampton’s female men’s team captain, or that strikingly, most teams in the league have reported low turnover rates making underdog performances at Nationals a very real possibility. Then there’s the usual points of interest, like team strategy, matchups, avenging grudges from last year, all that good stuff. Enough preamble, let’s get into it.
Predicted Finish: 1st
Captain’s Quote: “We are not going to take any game lightly so be ready for us coming at you all guns blazing! See you on the pitch!”
Bath are a bit of an oddity this season, in that they’ve suffered some fairly bad turnover. Mike Guise and Piers Nicholas (both GB U24) have both moved on, as has Mexican Dave Talamas (Mexico). It’s not all bad news, though. They’ve held onto their captain, Matt Elmore, and Ben Giles (both Ka-Pow!). Bath have also retained Kiran Patel, Fraser Roberts, and Johnny Poffley, players with less club experience but hops and height for days. So this is still very much the team that went to the finals at Nationals last year. Bath has always been very consistent in maintaining a high-quality team, no matter the turnover circumstances.
When asked, Elmore refused to say too much about Bath’s strategies going into the year, only that they were shooting for no turnovers on offense and an aggressive defence. He wouldn’t even commit to favoring man or zone for fear of giving Bristol ammo against them. I’ve chosen to take it as a compliment about the size of the ShowGame’s readership, so I’ll let it slide. But having played them many times, I don’t need inside information to hazard a guess at their play style. A lot of university teams struggle to field confident handlers and receivers, and so their long game is risky. Many prefer to work the disc up the pitch to about midway or even two-thirds to the goal line before looking for the score. Not so with Bath. They have the height, speed, grabs, and accuracy for a huck at any position. That this will be true with almost any player combination makes them even more threatening. Scoring quickly from turnovers will punish every mistake, leading to games where they slowly pull away, bit by bit. It’s still Bath’s region over here. I’m calling an official dynasty.
Predicted Finish: 2nd
Captain’s Quote: “You may back yourself, but you’re barking at the wrong tree, you pay for what you get and this year you paid to get beaten. You win sometimes, you lose sometimes, so don’t beat yourselves off about it. We may be overconfident, but we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”
I asked captain Nathan Sanders if the above is really what he wanted to say and he seemed quite confident that it was. If it’s a reference to something it’s going over my head. Well, mixed metaphors aside, you can never count Bristol out. Last year was touch and go for them, they were incorporating a lot of new players into the team on the fly which may have caused a very close win against Exeter. This year they’ve lost Luke Heyward, Ben ‘Heavy’ Petty, and Jannik Hildebrant. Additionally, Matthew Nahajski will be out with an injury for an indeterminate amount of time. Still, they’ve retained a big core of last year’s squad, including Andy Paterson (Devon), last year’s captain. Jonny Millar and Sned Hatton (both Bristol Open) have stayed on. Many of last year’s less experienced players are now the core of this squad, so expect big things from them this season.
Are they strong enough to beat Bath? Well, maybe. Bath seem to have had a tougher round of turnovers in advance of the season. I got a bit more out of Sanders than Elmore regarding strategy. Bristol are training to use their big guys deep to take advantage of their expansive throws. On defence, we can expect a hard man D focussed on making teams really work for their points and punishing them for turns. It’s a very straightforward style that doesn’t rely on tricks or gambles. The gameplan is to simply outplay opponents. In fact, Sanders said reigning in maverick players was somewhat of a focus this year, even further highlighting the straighforwardness of their style. Well, he singled out a particular maverick, but I’m too nice to do the same here.
Sanders was certainly confident about Bristol’s chances, he picked them to top the league, followed by Exeter, then Bath. That scenario doesn’t seem too far fetched. It’s always been close between those three and this year is no exception. Bath has weakened significantly, but if I’m honest, I really doubt the slide has been so severe as to drop last year’s second place finisher at Nationals all the way down to third best in their region.
Predicted Finish: 3rd
Captain’s Quote(s): Matt Lear- “Don’t take us for granted and prepare for those close wins last year to become losses this year!”
Rob Bentley- “Get hyped for some very competitive Ultimate! To quote a great club member ‘We may not have six packs, but we play Ultimate Frisbee and we’re acing our undergrads.’”
Yup, two quotes, one for each of Exeter’s captains. The original captain dropped out, leaving these guys to step up to the plate, sharing responsibilities due to their busy schedules. It’s one of those arrangements where if it works, it probably goes great, but if it doesn’t, the whole club collapses. University captains are often just the best player going, which isn’t a good indicator of leadership ability. However, with two captains they can cover each other’s backs and take the jobs the other is weak in. Will the unique leadership of Exeter propel them to the top of the league? I’m definitely watching out for the explosive potential!
But first, let’s cut to the chase. Last year sucked for Exeter. They fought both Bristol and Bath to within two points, but were unable to close out either game, coming in third for the league yet again. I mean, third is still Division 1, so it’s not a horrible result, but it probably stung to come so close on two occasions only to finish just short. They’ll have something to prove right out the gate this year. Christopher Ross, Sean Jagger, and Luke Gregory (all Devon 2 players) have left the team. Still, they’ve kept a large number of their core guys, including star handler Louis Cash. Exeter will play as they did last year, utilising their consistent handlers for piecemeal movement up the pitch until they’re in a scoring position. For defence, they’ll use their punishing speed to get unexpected blocks with man and choke off options when they zone.
I love an underdog story and after last year, it sure would be nice to see Exeter take the top slot, but they’ve got quite a hill to climb in order to do it. The squads they’ve lost to year in and year out haven’t gone anywhere, and while Bath looks a bit vulnerable, Bristol does not.
Predicted Finish: 4th
Captain’s Quote: “Are you gonna eat that?”
Oh, poor Swansea. Every year they’re in the awful position of knowing one upset win could carry them into Division 1, while an upset loss might send them spiraling into the lower league next year. And in addition to that they have me (and others, but mostly me) underrating them and forecasting doom. But there’s some bright news! They’ve retained just about every relevant player from last year. Core handler Thawn Hatzaw (BAF) is back as is cutter Ross Hurley (BAF). They’ve also stolen Oliver White (GB U17) from UWE somehow. Of course, the other teams have had similar turnover levels, so it might not mean much big picture.
Men’s team captain Will Waddell doesn’t have exotic plans for strategy this season. He wants to incorporate more structure and give roles to players on the pitch, possibly instituting specific offensive and defensive lines. The team plans to take note of opponent’s strategies and then adapt their playstyle around that. An adaptable strategy sounds good, but it can quickly fall apart when there are gaps in teamwork, but with a mostly veteran team, Swansea are likely to experience some success with their game plan. Waddell highlighted graduate’s continued interest in their University team as a key aid in their development. Hopefully, some players who have done it all before will come back and put the Swansea boys on the path to their first Division 1 finish since the formation of BUCS.
Are we going to see Swansea come out of nowhere and win it all this season? No. The gulf between Bath/Bristol and Swansea is just too wide to overcome so quickly. They’ve run close games against Exeter, but with both having solid retention this season, even qualifying for Division 1 will be an uphill battle. Still, Swansea have shown themselves quite capable of putting away teams fresh to the upper league and despite what are sure to be strong challenges from Southampton and UWE, there isn’t any reason to think they won’t be able to do it this year.
Predicted Finish: 5th
Captain’s Quote: “Can’t wait to play some high intensity, high level Ultimate and show off the talent in the South West.”
Now, what about that female captain I so enticed you with way back at the beginning? Well, Katie Allen has taken the reigns of Southampton’s men’s team and I’m really excited to see what she can do with it. At a time when BUCS is creating two rather separated Men’s and Women’s leagues, it’s great to see women represented in the Men’s league this way. Allen herself notes that she used to gain motivation to improve by dreaming of making the Open Regionals team. She can’t play in any BUCS matches, but a huge advantage in having an off the pitch captain is that they can function more like a coach. Allen can focus solely on observing and giving feedback, rather than having to split focus between that and training herself.
Not content with merely that, Allen also has spearheaded a fluid roster, where any player at any time can be dropped or added to the team for an upcoming match, based on recent performance. She believes this roots out complacency and gives lower level players something to strive for. It’s a good strategy for trying to fill the holes in their line. Southampton have lost many players who have been with them for three or four years, including some who had played with Reading Ultimate. They’ve managed to hold onto James Bull (Reading Ultimate) and Tristan Millington (Reading Ultimate), as well as Keiran Patel (Concrete). Allen also asserted that some up and comers, including Joe Newman (Mohawks), were going to be big names in a few years. We’ll have to wait and see!
Southampton is a team with potential. They could go as high as third, or end up in sixth. Their captain has big plans for the team. With a bit of luck, they could achieve them and more. If this team does drop down to the lower league, I doubt we’ll see them staying there for long
Predicted Finish: 6th
Captain’s Quote: “We’ve upped our training times and intensity with our new coach. We are in the first division now and we are here to stay.”
Can’t fault captain Chris Deegan’s confidence. They fought their way into the upper league and they would very much like to stay there. According to Deegan, they’ve lost quite a few players including, as mentioned earlier, Oliver White. He’s turned traitor and is playing for Swansea this season. But one key ‘pickup’ is a coach from Bristol Ultimate. It might be tough for a coach to take the team from scraping their way out of the lower leagues to a serious contender for a Division 1 slot, but it certainly isn’t impossible. If they’re lucky with their game order and face Swansea and Southampton towards the end, when they’ve been drilled up, who knows what could happen?
Deegan’s relatively short answers felt like a quiet confidence to me, but Bristol captain Nathan Sanders wasn’t quite as optimistic. He felt that Bristol’s sister university was likely to come last due how many players they’d turned over. Whether that doom and gloom assessment comes true is tough to say, but no matter what, the team has a tough road ahead if they want to avoid slipping back into the lower league.
‘Wait a minute!’ I hear you cry, ‘Isn’t this exactly where everyone placed last year!?
Well… yes. And the year prior to that. It goes: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Swansea, then the two new teams. I don’t get paid to be interesting, I get paid to be accurate. Well, I don’t get paid. And my editors would probably prefer I was both in either case.
There are opportunities for upsets everywhere, but they just don’t seem that likely. The relatively low turnover this year means everyone’s playing with really similar squads from last year. This is great for Nationals. Other teams doubtless will not have been so lucky and the region as a whole will be able to capitalize on the inexperience of other teams. But for the Wednesday matches, it means it’s a rehash of last year’s games. If you’re keen to see this region shake up a little (I know I am), look to Bristol and Southampton. Bristol could realistically dethrone Bath, while Southampton will look to knock Swansea into relegation. I mean, I said that exact same thing last year, but… this year! This year it could really happen! And next year! And the year after that! And the year after that! And the…
Feature photo by Andrew Moss for theShowGame.