UKU Nationals preview: Open division

Sean Colfer has done a bumper preview on all three divisions. They’ll all be coming this evening as he gets (most of) his picks on record for everyone to criticise once they’re proved wrong. Here’s his view on the Open division.

Nationals is the culmination of the domestic season, the final act on a long slog that started in Cardiff what seems like a hundred years ago. After hosting the first iteration of the new format last season, Birmingham will again welcome the best 32 open, women’s and mixed teams in the country to find out who’s best (even though we probably know) and who’s going to Poland to play Europe’s best.
Let’s get to the division-specific predictions.

So; Clapham will win, we know that. They are missing some people from WUCC but have a supremely talented group despite those losses. They start with Bristol, who are delighted to be here after stunning Fire in the game to go in Edenbridge. That won’t be very close, but the 1-16 never is. The next match is an interesting one, more in who they’ll play than how the quarter might go.

Flump are the eighth seed after a fantastic season (eighth overall at Tour, their best ever) and have added Martyn Brown, a longtime Fire player, and Michele Ghansah who’s floated between a number of teams in recent years but is a very effective handler with the ability to go up and win battles in the air. They face a very strong SMOG side who start ninth despite coming second in the northern qualifiers. It’s going to be an intriguing game that could legitimately go either way, but I suspect SMOG’s collective height, experience from WUCC and depth might just push them over the top – players like Tom Bennett and Alex Mazzon are very, very tough to stop. SMOG won’t challenge Clapham in the quarter, but they’d put themselves in the conversation for EUCF spots in this scenario.

Clapham’s semi-final is probably the most difficult spot in the top four to predict. The class of the teams it could be is probably either newly-minted Tour champions Ka-Pow!, or the lads from Limerick, PELT. PELT are difficult to project but they seem to have a pretty large squad and have added to it since the season finished – George Hudson of JR and latterly Fire is included alongside more usual names like Padraig Sweeney and Niall McCarthy. They beat Ka-Pow! twice at Tour 1 and always seem to find a way to succeed in the difficult early stages of these tournaments. The Londoners will have WUCC player Marius Hutcheson handling for them and have all of their big impact players available. If I was a betting man I’d stay well away from what looks like a quarter between these two teams, but I’ll back the Irishmen narrowly for the sake of making predictions.

Alex Cragg in his first UK regionals for Clapham. Photo by Ed Hanton.

Clapham’s O line beat PELT in Cardiff at Tour 1, so I don’t think there’ll be too much drama in that match – PELT could get into double figures but I doubt there’ll be intrigue late into the second half. That means I’ve got Clapham in the final. A shock, I know.

On the other side of the draw, it looks like a collision course between two familiar foes. Chevron have had a pretty good season so far – they won Tour 1 after beating both Clapham teams and finished in the top 16 at WUCC – and retained their kings in the north title quite comfortably. The additions they’ve made have been a success, and some of their younger players are maturing into key contributors. They’re starting against Leeds, and from there will play the winner of an intriguing Brighton vs EMO clash. Both teams have been a bit up and down this season but will have a lot of talent; EMO have consolidated their squads for the first time in a while and feature key names like Ben Poole, Sam Rayner and George Gayton, while Brighton have most of their big names on the roster – James Wotherspoon, Joe Butler and Tom Mannings are longtime Brighton players and Ricardo Fungairino is a supremely athletic receiver. I see this being close, but would back EMO at a push.

Meanwhile, Ranelagh are also coming off a good WUCC. They have a large squad and, short of two or three injuries, are missing very few of their top players. Ferdia Rogers will be a key part of the offence, while players like Keith Mernagh, Ross Andreucetti and Liam Fletcher add athleticism downfield. The laghds start with Birmingham and will then play the winner of what looks to be the most difficult first round match to pick – Reading against Devon. Devon have brought everyone from the WUCC while Reading have all the men that were in Cincinnati plus some talented extras. This one will be a cracking start to the weekend – players like Rich Coward and Sam Taylor matching up with Andy Lewis and Ali McNeill. I like Reading to take it but whoever loses is going to be a nightmare match for Birmingham as they attempt to avoid the round robin.

Despite there being some very good teams in the lower half of the draw, I think we’ll see Chevron and Ranelagh facing off in the semi-final. Chevron won that matchup 11-8 at Tour 1, so they’ll probably have the upper hand going into the game, but it’ll be close. Ranelagh have somehow never made EUCF and are going to be firing on all cylinders to try and break that duck. Chevron take this for me but Ranelagh are going to make it close.

That leaves us with a familiar final and a fascinating middle bracket for the final two spots. Clapham versus Chevron has happened so many times now that we’re used to the kind of game we might see – Chevron will come out fired up but Clapham will pull slightly further away in the second half and win by a few. Chev will be determined to avoid that fate again this season but, having lost to a full Clapham squad pretty comfortably at WUCC (admittedly both teams were slightly deflated at that point), there’s not too much reason to think it’ll be any different this season.

The middle bracket at this point requires some talking through. The losers of the first matches all play off to see who goes into the bracket. With the results I’ve landed on already, we are left with: Flump vs Bristol; Manchester vs XVI; Birmingham vs Devon; and Brighton vs Leeds. Three of those games are quite easy picks for me – Flump, Devon and Brighton would come through without too much trouble in my view – but the young Dubliners XVI might have some trouble with Manchester. The northerners have lost some players over the last few years but showed all season that they can grind and battle to get tough wins. If XVI are missing a couple of players from their roster – there are some potential injuries and players with commitments coaching in other divisions – then this could be a tight one. I’ll back the Dubliners, though.

So that means the next round is the 5-12 qualification bracket, with the losing quarter-finalists dropping down. Again, assuming the results up to this point are right we have: Flump vs EMO; Reading vs XVI; Ka-Pow! vs Devon; and SMOG vs Brighton. These games are why teams come to Nationals. I think Reading would come through quite comfortably against XVI but otherwise these are all incredibly close to call. Ka-Pow! have had a brilliant season but Devon have such confidence in each other and play a very difficult style to match up with. SMOG and Brighton have both got big game players with lots of experience, and Flump have waited a long time for this kind of chance at Nationals, a big name like EMO in a meaningful game. Toughest calls yet, but I would back EMO, Reading, Ka-Pow! and SMOG in these games.

So that leaves two games where the winners get a shot at the Irish to go to EUCF. Reading against EMO, and Ka-Pow! against SMOG. Ka-Pow! have the spectre of the Fire game from last season at this stage hanging over them – they were comfortably in the lead but succumbed to a long D roll that let Fire snatch the victory away from them. They look a hardier bunch this season, better for that experience, but SMOG will be difficult to play against. They have the WUCC experience and they’re very athletic across the roster. Reading have been brilliant in all divisions this season but if EMO reach this stage they’ll be brimming with confidence and ready to throw themselves at anything to get blocks. More difficult choices, but for me Reading and Ka-Pow! run out winners here.

That leaves us with Reading facing PELT, and Ka-Pow! facing Ranelagh. One of these calls I make with some confidence – to me, Ranelagh are the third best team in this field. If they can get out of their own way and overcome the jinx that EUCF seems to hold for them, they’ll finish third and go to Poland. PELT vs Reading, on the other hand, I pretty much can’t call. PELT won 15-12 at Tour 1 but Reading have grown since then. Andy Mitchell is back in the fold, and every other big name is there with him. They have a larger squad but PELT have made a habit of coming across the Irish Sea with short lines and winning. This will be a highly charged game, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that Reading take it.

So, after over 1,000 words, here’s my predicted standings:

1. Clapham
2. Chevron
3. Ranelagh
4. Reading
6. Ka-Pow!
8. EMO
9. Devon
10. Brighton
11. Flump
12. XVI
13. Birmingham
14. Manchester
15. Leeds
16. Bristol

Featured photo by Sam Mouat