UKU Nationals preview: Women’s 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 Women’s 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.

This has been an odd season for the Women’s division with WUCC interrupting things as it did in Open. HYDRA ended up winning Tour from Purple Cobras, two teams that didn’t even exist a few years ago. They’re paired with two excellent teams in Pool D – SYC, who finished second here last season, and Gravity, the Irish champs. SYC are fresh off their WUCC experience and come into the tournament with confidence, their trademark enthusiasm and a large, talented squad. Gravity, meanwhile, are chock full of players with extensive international experience with Ireland. It should be relatively straightforward for who finishes in the top two – Gravity will win, while SYC will finish second. The third place is the interesting one here, and I’d back HYDRA to take it in a very tight game. Their squad size could very well be the deciding factor, with enough solid players behind their standouts like University of Birmingham teammates Kim and Grace Owen – the captains – and Ophelia Byrne.

In the other pool, it’s a bit of a bloodbath. Reigning champs Iceni had a rocky period in the season, falling twice to Bristol in Cardiff, but roared back with a great WUCC before struggling to field a team at Women’s qualifiers and finishing fourth. They enter as fifth seed but have their squad back together after drafting in a lot of new faces at Edenbridge. Maya Mileck is on the roster but is currently owning things stateside with the Eurostars so I very much doubt she’ll make it. She would certainly be an X factor though! They still have stars like Karen Kwok, Jackie Verralls and Jenna Thomson so they’ll look very familiar. They’ll face Gravity’s younger squad, who’ll also be coming over to test themselves in the UK, as well as Nice Bristols and Reading. Bristols won Tour 2 and looked primed for a great WUCC before faltering a bit in Cincinnati. They’ve got a lot of talent though and come into the weekend knowing they can beat Iceni, which could be key for them. Reading have all their big names from the WUCC Mixed team alongside some other stalwarts of the club, with their squad showing just how deep the talent runs in Berkshire.

Iceni “captain” Vanessa Lowe at Regionals. Photo by Sam Mouat.

Someone has to miss out in Pool C. As it is, I suspect Reading are the ones to fall just short, but their victory over Bristols at Tour 1 means each of these teams has a big win over one of the others this season. There will be three brilliant games in this pool, so for the spectators it’s definitely the one to watch. I’ll back Iceni to top the pool, with Bristols second.

That would leave us with two very interesting pre-semis (as I am dubbing them). Reading would play SYC, while the winner of HYDRA and Purple Cobras would play Bristols. I think HYDRA will get that spot, but whoever it is I don’t expect that they’ll be able to hang with Bristols; the women in red have too much strength in depth and experience in big games to fall at that hurdle. The other game, though, is a real stormer. SYC finished below Reading at both Tours they went to and Reading won the third-place game in Cardiff. I’m not sure if it qualifies as an upset given how they’ve played this season, but I think Reading would win that game and send SYC into the lower half of the draw.

So we’re left with the top four, the semi-finalists; Reading vs Iceni (again) and Bristols vs Gravity. In this scenario, Iceni have already beaten Reading and have had an extra rest too, so I think it would be tough for Reading to turn that around. They’ll need to really ramp up the defensive pressure and take advantage of any slip ups by the Londoners – players like Bex Palmer and Amelia Kenneth would need to lead a huge defensive effort. They’ve got the talent, it’s whether they can maintain the kind of intensity and level of precision they’d need. I think it’s a bridge too far.

Bristols vs Gravity is another fantastic game to look forward to, and one that could legitimately go either way. Both teams have playmakers and have very solid all-around skills, so it’s very tough to choose a winner. Bristols have a squad of 25 with a good balance of experience and youthful athleticism – we’ve talked about some of their individuals already this season but suffice to say the top of their roster is able to compete at a very high level. The thing is, the top of Gravity’s roster might be even better. They have a number of players who’ve played for Ireland – Aine Gilheany, Claire Pugh, Jane Linehan and Emily Vereker to name a few – and have Fiona Mernagh, who’s able to take over games with her cutting, ability to throw deep and get turns on defence. Their depth will be an issue all weekend – bringing a second team full of under-24s means they only have 15 players with at least one injury already restricting that further – but at their best they’ll be a match for anyone. I think in the end I’d back Bristols to take it but it would be on a knife edge.

That means it’s Bristols vs Iceni yet again this season to decide the national champion. In this scenario, Iceni have avenged the losses from Cardiff once already. The Sunday of Nationals is likely to be wet and windy, the same conditions we saw there, which might swing things back into the favour of Bristols, but in the end I’ll take the experience of Iceni – they’ve won the title a number of times and are comfortable under that pressure. I think it’ll be their closest one in a while, but the title stays in London for now.

  1. Iceni
  2. Bristols
  3. Gravity
  4. Reading
  5. SYC
  6. HYDRA
  7. Purple Cobras
  8. Gravity under-24s

Feature photo by Sam Mouat