Alun Pinder brings us his thoughts ahead of this weekend’s UXIN!
November draws to a close, the nights draw in, Michael Bublé re-emerges from hibernation for another round of Christmas cover versions, and UK Ultimate prepares to crown its first National Champion of the academic year. It’s Mixed Indoor Nationals time, and the best of the best are ready to descend on Coventry. Grab your cocoa, wrap up warm, we’re going back to the Alan Higgs centre, and we won’t be going home until we find a winner. Let’s meet the teams.
Scotland Looks Strong
In news that should surprise no-one, the Scottish teams once again look poised to dominate the top end of nationals. After Glasgow took the title back north of the wall with them last year, Aberdeen followed suit in Division 2, and Strathclyde and Edinburgh also reached the top eight, repeat performances will be expected. Glasgow are coming off yet another Mixed Regional title, and may debatably have been the second-best team at Men’s, albeit placing third after meeting winners Strathclyde in the semi-final. Edinburgh bring an outstanding female line up and considerable Mixed experience with Black Eagles, complemented by big plays across the roster. Strathclyde’s quality is shown by their triumph at Men’s Regionals, where they beat back all comers in convincing fashion (Glasgow excepted), and finally Aberdeen will step up to the top division this year, and look to prove that their ceiling is higher than last year permitted them to show.
Predictions of Scotland’s strength can often get a little hyperbolic, and this year Scotland reporter Oscar Nolan has called three Scottish semi-finalists and an all Scottish final. While I can’t see that level of domination, a repeat win for Glasgow wouldn’t be a long shot. Look for three teams in the top eight again, and some heavily lopsided scorelines in pool play.
It’s Tough up North
The sprawling Northern region produced one team each from East and West to challenge at Division 1, with champions Newcastle putting down long-time powerhouse Manchester in the final. Newcastle combine allegedly the best female line in the region with a Men’s team based around slick, quick movement to devastating effect. New addition Ross Nugent (Fire) can unlock the toughest of defences, and with opponents unable to generate turns, they can make every error count. Manchester claim the second spot over neighbours Liverpool, although the magic of past years may be fading. A reportedly weaker-looking team still had the stuff to reach the final and defend seed in the game to go, but hopes of a top finish at Nationals may go unrealised.
Having personally witnessed Newcastle Men’s play already this year (with word that the Mixed team use a similar style), if their can find their form I predict they could go far in Coventry. Manchester are rumoured to have suffered a drop in quality on the female side this year, and with strong women being the order of the day for regional finalists across the country, that could end their Nationals adventure at an early stage.
Change in Yorks and East Mids
For a little while, Yorkshire and East Midlands Mixed Regionals has followed a pattern. Everyone descends upon Leeds for the weekend, someone (looking at you, Nottingham) runs headfirst into a wall, and Leeds and Loughborough play out the final. This year though, things were a little different. The tournament moved south to Nottingham, concussions were largely avoided, and the big name teams were upset by Huddersfield and their unconventional model for success. Huddersfield play more like a club team than perhaps any other team in the university division, taking the game away from an athletic contest and into a test of technical skill and throwing ability. A tight line of elite women, endless hours of tournament time together, and shots tailored to specific receivers makes the Huddersfield offence a rare joy in a region where athleticism often dominates. The likes of Tanya Fozzard and Elly White made scoring look easy against some excellent defences. The usual suspects fill out the remaining spots, with Loughborough’s smooth vertical movement, Leeds’s signature side stack, Nottingham’s space maximising 2-1-2 and Sheffield’s brilliant female isolation play bringing five very different styles to Coventry.
The key fact in determining the chances of this region is where Nationals is, or rather, what surface it will be played on. In a region with nothing but hard court indoors, the change in pitch size may be deadly. While some, like Nottingham, might see the extra space aid them, it could prove terminal to Huddersfield’s zone, or the kind of one and two-shot plays that get teams rolling on the smaller pitches. Expect strong showings from the usual names, but fifth might be the ceiling for this region. And as for the champions, anything is possible, maybe even a shock title. After all, they’ve already done it once this year…
Normal Service Continues in the West Midlands (and Wales)
In one of university Ultimate’s most consistent results, Birmingham retained the West Midlands and Wales Mixed region with a bang, looking comfortable in all their games but one. Warwick also returned to their customary position, falling in the final to take the second spot. Birmingham 2 claimed the final bid with a tight win over Bangor. Birmingham bring their customary size and speed on the male side, and strong female cohort headlined by Ophelia Byrne and Grace Owens (Hydra), both of age-group international fame. The one blemish on their record is a narrow victory against Aberystwyth, casting a little doubt on their ability to cope with a patient, female-led offence, but write Birmingham off at your peril. Warwick, as usual, play faster than the eye can follow. The size of Joe van der Wiel in the middle of the pitch, and the disk skills all around make for a dazzling display, but the ease with which they rolled over for Birmingham calls into question their mental game when the going gets tough. Finally, Birmingham 2 provide this year’s surprise second team package. A team that favours the big shot, stopping their pull play will be crucial to stopping them picking up some upsets.
While the finishing order may be familiar, the impact those teams have at nationals may not be. Word is that the standard of the region looked lower this year than it has for a while, and they may struggle to replicate the form that saw two semi-final spots be claimed last year. On the flip side, though, they will be better prepared than most for the idiosyncrasies of the Alan Higgs centre. Expect Birmingham 1 and Warwick to finish between six and fourteen. Birmingham 2 may learn, as Loughborough 2 did last year, that the step up is a bit much without your club’s top players, and might well be propping up the table.
Turns out Playing for Years Makes You Quite Good at Frisbee
Oxford repeated last year’s strong showing in the South East to claim a second consecutive title, followed closely by a newer name on the Nationals scene, Reading. As typical big names like Sussex, Surrey and Portsmouth fell, these two powered through to meet in the final for their second match-up of the weekend. Both results went Oxford’s way. Oxford bring a strong squad of players, some of whom should surely have graduated by now (mentioning no luminously attired names), who favour what eternal postgraduate Harry Mason describes as “actual Mixed”. With top level pedigree from names like Joyce Kwok (Reading) and Christine Moore (Black Eagles), bolstered with an array of U.S. international students at their disposal, they will look to go deep at Nationals. Reading Knights are a new name at this level, climbing from sixth in the region last year for the current squad’s UXIN debut. Big fans of the big plays, Reading will put up anything, and probably come down with it too. Names like Sam Benians and Charlotte Marriott (Leicester alumni represent!) have been picking up valuable experience with Reading Ultimate, while Ryan Coones returns from a year abroad to play iso. Anyone not ready for their big game will quickly find themselves sinking into a deep, deep hole.
The quality of the teams not going this year speaks for the strength in this region. Oxford will hope to go all the way, but may meet their match against a team like Edinburgh, who can take on their preferred three woman line and win the matchups. Reading’s explosive style may be less suited to 3G indoors, and a lack of experience with the style could cost them a chance at the top bracket. Oxford to make a semi-final, Reading to see a crossover just slip away from them.
A+ for DD
Imperial DiscDoctors claimed the East and London crown, coming back from an early deficit against Hertfordshire in the finals. A team stacked with experience and postgrad talent, Imperial made the most of new additions such as Claire Baker (GB U24 Women), joining an already strong squad featuring the likes of Rolo Turnell-Ritson (Fire of London), playing adaptable defence to take away and opponent’s biggest weapons. A tactical switch in the final outwitted Herts and swung the region. For Hertfordshire, the big story is Ernest Simons. When he is dialled in, they can take the game away from an opponent very rapidly. They did perhaps show some vulnerability to sudden changes in strategy, wobbling and losing a three-point advantage in the final after Imperial switched to a flick force, but proved able to overcome that tactic against Cambridge in the game to go. Much will depend on how they function if a top tier defender can take Simons out of the game.
Imperial’s top end talent and adaptability stands them in good stead for a top eight finish. For Herts though, trouble beckons against a team with a defensive star. When Simons is beaten, the rest of the team tends to follow suit. Too much dependency on a single star, no matter how good, is a risky scenario at this high level.
Wild Results out West
To the Ultimate traditionalist, the South West is often perceived as a shootout between Bath and Bristol, with Exeter following close behind. This year though, it seems no-one told Plymouth. Devon’s new top team claimed an upset victory, downing Bath in the final on universe point. Captain Amelia Durbin gives their philosophy as “Consistency is key; fast O, hard D, catch with two hands, always give 110%”, and it certainly paid off. Besides, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Jamie Rabbetts is, apparently, rather tall and good at catching. Runners up Bath will still be hurting, particularly in the pride department. Their captain Ben Giles (Ka-Pow!) reckons they were comfortably the strongest team present, and will benefit further from the bigger 3G pitches lessening the impact of any height disadvantages. In a region where several teams could compete in one gender or the other, the ability to put together a strong squad from both made the difference for these two.
Without wishing to do Plymouth a disservice, multiple opponents have emphasised how much Jamie “Definitely Above Average Height”* Rabbetts and his vertical dominance changed the game. The bigger pitches at Nationals may lessen the impact of that trump card, but no team wins a region entirely on a single tall player. Meanwhile Bath are targeting a top three finish. The region isn’t historically the strongest, but both teams will hope to change that when it counts. Expect one in the top eight, one just below.
*May not be a genuine nickname
If predicting university Ultimate seemed futile before Regionals, it looks utterly ludicrous now. Nevertheless, here’s a few sticks to beat me with when the chaos finally ends:
Just Missing Out: Birmingham, Imperial, Reading, Leeds
Yes, I predicted an all Scottish final. Yes, I hate myself for it.
Feature photo by Alice Hanton.