The European Ultimate Championships start this weekend, with teams from all over the continent converging on Gyor in western Hungary. There are six teams of interest for readers from these shores – three teams each for Great Britain and Ireland. Those teams go with some stacked squads, some high hopes, and some heavy expectations. Consider this a brief overview of each team, where they might be aiming and who they’ll need to beat to get there.
Let’s start with the division that saw the teams play each other in the final last time around. There, Great Britain won the final 17-13 against an Irish team that broke up before WUGC 2016 the following year. That continued a trend that GB will be looking to further again here; no team other than a British squad has ever won this title. That weight of history makes the target that’s on the backs of GB squads whenever they play in Europe even bigger for this mixed team, and it’s something they’ll have to wear well given the depth in this division. The Irish, on the other hand, have a very different-looking team and will be looking to cause some shocks.
The team should have pretty good cohesion, with many of the players having played together before, either at club level or with a different GB team (some senior, some different age-level teams). The main handlers are among the most dynamic in the country; Joe Wynder added a different dimension to the Chevron WUCC team last season and brings the biggest throws in UK Ultimate, Carla Link was a key part of Bristol’s title-winning team last season and Sam Vile’s ability to move the disc around the field and get free in the handler space makes Deep Space a threat against any mixed team. Additionally, Becci Haigh has played at the highest level the sport has to offer at the World Games in Cali, Colombia. Alongside Scots Katie Flight and Andy Boxall, as well as Chevron stalwarts Dom Dathan and Josh Kyme, this team is not going to want for players who can challenge their mark and exploit the break side.
Their cutters have a wealth of experience and dynamic athleticism – Bailey Melvin-Teng, Tessa Hunt and Rachel Turton would feature heavily in any discussion about the most athletic woman currently playing in the UK. All three are able to run past or jump over defenders and will be huge mismatches against even the best teams. Rollo Sax Dixon, Steve Kolthammer and Issa Dualeh are Chevron teammates and bring a significant aerial threat to the squad alongside the all-around games of Andy Lewis, Lucy Barnes and Ben Burak, while Ellie Taylor and Nick Williams are among the fastest cutters around. That I haven’t yet mentioned players like Ange Wilkinson and Sam Turner shows just how deep this squad is; there isn’t a weak link anywhere on the roster.
It seems from the outside, with the talent and experience on this roster, that the outlook should be (to quote Megan Rapinoe) championship or bust. The French and Russian squads are very talented, and this team lost to upstarts Sweden in a warm-up tournament so they’re not invincible. The temptation is to focus on WUGC in the Netherlands next year, to think about competing against the USA, Australia and Canada. However, if this team can hit its stride and focus on the opponent in front of them, another European gold is well within reach.
This is a young team, and one that may struggle to live up to the legacy of the 2015 squad. Their job has been made harder by injury concerns to key cutter Keith Mernagh and handler Aidan Kelly, but there’s some talent to make up for that here. John Doherty is a veteran of many Irish national teams and brings big throws and a strong aerial game to the team, while American-born import Eric von Kampen will be able to keep the disc moving against anyone. Deirdre Kavanagh, one of the few holdovers from the 2015 team, will be an important cutter too while Aine Ahern will see a lot of the disc in the backfield.
This squad made the quarter-finals at Windmill before falling to the Germans. They have a tough pool, with the Germans and the Russians, featuring many of the players who blew the field away at EBUC in Portimao earlier this year – both formidable foes. They should be able to work their way into the bracket with a strong showing in a potential lower pool against teams like Slovenia, Norway and Belgium, but the bet is that they find it tough to get to quarters – particularly if Mernagh isn’t available.
The women’s division was long one where Great Britain competed at the very top but couldn’t manage to break through and win an elusive gold. Silver medals in 2011 and 2007 were followed with a slight disappointment in 2015 as they took fifth. The team this time around is a relatively young one. Ireland, on the other hand, finished 12th in 2015 and have never been a fixture at the top of the division. That looks set to change in Hungary.
The British women are led by some disc handlers who have played at a high level throughout their Ultimate careers. Hannah Brew and Caitlin Wilson are two of the best throwers in the UK, and Megan Hurst brings a level of consistency and lefty craft that will be vital to the team. Cutters Leila Denniston, Helen Roberts and Avril Hunter all played at WUCC, competing and thriving against the best, while Eyan Sham, Rachel Naden and Sophie Wharton add dynamism and athleticism. There is also some sign of a younger generation coming in to make an impact, with Vix Wilby, Rupal Ghelani and Saskia Kantorowicz likely to play vital roles.
One of the things that coaches Paul Waite (formerly a Clapham player and coach of Iceni) and Callum Spiers will be wary of is that few of these players have played for the GB senior team before. They face a very strong German side fresh off a Windmill win in the pool, and will have some tough battles on the horizon. The quarterfinal is likely to be against a team like Russia, Germany or Finland – all teams with extensive experience that will be tough to stop – and so the top eight could be the limit for this team. If it all comes together they might be able to get into the semis, but my money isn’t on that gold medal drought ending this time around.
The Irish women have something of a golden generation together here. They have players capable of matching up with anyone in Europe across the squad, and depth in every spot. They’re serious, real contenders here and will be looking to bring a medal home for the first time at this event.
It starts with the star players – Kelly Hyland, Sarah Melvin and Fiona Mernagh. American-born Hyland has been playing since discovering the sport while studying abroad in Cork and brings extensive experience having played for Washington DC Scandal in the USA. Mernagh has played for Ireland women plenty of times before and competed with Gravity at UK Nationals last year, while Melvin was one of the breakout stars of the Eurostars tour in 2018. All three are capable of doing whatever their team needs on the field and will need to be accounted for whenever they’re on.
Supporting them is a talented squad. Aine Gilheany, Grainne McCarthy and Lulu Boyd are all very good handlers, while under-24 Emily O’Brien will play an important role downfield. This is another team without a weak link.
Everything is in place for this team to succeed. They lost in the quarterfinals of Windmill to Finland in a very contentious matchup, and most of the team was there when DESKEAGH made the final of Tom’s Tourney this year. They have a great shot at a medal even when Germany, Russia, Finland and Belgium will all be factors in a strong year for women’s Ultimate in Europe. If they hit their ceiling this could be a year to remember for the women in green.
The final division is another in which GB has long experienced success. They won gold in 2007, beating Sweden, and continued that storied rivalry in 2011 when the Swedes won in one of the more controversial pre-social media games I can recall. The team got back to winning habits in 2015 with a victory over Germany and will come into this event with designs on another trophy. The Irish are one of the main teams standing in their way, with a deep roster full of experienced players and exciting young talent looking to make their mark.
The squad is, predictably, largely made up of Clapham players. 14 of the 25 players hail from the perennial UK and European champions (and another two used to play for them), which is fewer than in previous years but still a substantial chunk. The big names will be familiar from previous GB open teams – Justin and Ash are both basically mononymic in UK Ultimate at this point and are still a vital part of the O line – but there’s an infusion of exciting young talent here too.
Conrad Wilson of Clapham and Alexis Long of SMOG are the two young players on the O line, while Chevron players Seb Allen, Dec Cartwright and Josh Eeles combine with Josh Awcock of Devon, Steve Gillman of SMOG and EMO’s Joel Miller to add youth on the D line.
They also have players who can fit in the kinds of roles needed in these big tournaments. Will Rowledge, Connor McHale and Ollie Gordon can challenge anyone in the air defensively and get blocks against anyone. Ben Funk and Robbie Haines are vital cutters who can do a bit of everything, while James Mead and Josh Briggs can either keep the disc moving or take downfield shots as needed. The squad is deep, talented, experienced and focused. They’ll be tough to stop.
The Irish had a disappointing Windmill by their high standards. They lost close games to GB and Condors, the Californian team, in the Swiss draw and then were upset by the Czech Republic in quarters. They have the talent to run with anyone in Europe for stretches and will be hoping that the experience they gained in Amsterdam will help them avoid any letdowns in Gyor.
This is another team with a good blend of youth and experience. On the younger side, Tadhg Deevy has shown signs of becoming one of the better cutters in Europe, Andrew Cleary is having a breakout season as a downfield threat while captain Ferdia Rogers has the potential to be one of the best handlers around.
Rogers combines with Padraig Sweeney to form a formidable pair – they were unstoppable at times at Windmill and have the ability to take defences apart in a variety of ways. Owen Binchy, Robbie Brennan and Niall McCarthy will all be important parts of the D line and will get blocks, while Rob Holland and Conor Hogan will help them turn those blocks into breaks.
This team has the potential to be a spoiler, to reach the semifinals and cause real headaches for anyone once they’re there. They were in a number of close games at Windmill, though, and struggled to come out on top in those matches. If they can start turning that luck around they have a shot at a medal. If they really get on track, they could see their arch rivals GB in the final.
It wouldn’t be a preview article without me giving my 100%, iron-clad, guaranteed-to-be-right-predictions for what’ll happen. I’m pretty optimistic about the chances of our teams taking home trophies – in fact, my prediction is that every division is won by teams in this article.
My pick for mixed is that GB beat France or Russia in the final, while Ireland narrowly miss out on a quarters spot and finish in the top 10. In women’s, I’m saying that GB will fall in the quarters and finish in seventh or eighth, while Ireland make the final and beat either Russia or Belgium (Ireland will also want to top their pool, because the power pool if they finish second looks like a stinker – Germany, Russia and Belgium are all potentially in there). In men’s, it’ll be very tight but I think Ireland lose out to Germany for top in their power pool, leading to a GB v Ireland semi. I see GB winning there and defeating the Germans, and Ireland beating Switzerland or Austria for the bronze.
If you want to follow along, the coverage is all on Fanseat and we’ll try to get some links out on social media. Good luck to all six teams!