By James Burnett
The first ever QPL Championship will be held this Saturday, August 26 at KCOM Craven Park Stadium in Hull. With the South’s matchdays in the books, let’s take a look back at how each team performed this year and predict how they might look at the Championship.
Coming into the QPL Championship as undefeated divisional winners, expectations would be for the Southeast Knights to represent the best chance of a southern victory, although they must patch up shortcomings that have threatened to undermine their divisional play if they are to pose a serious challenge to the favourites, West Midlands Revolution.
The Knights’ strength lies in their versatile, elite quaffle lineup, which forms the best asset Knights manager Michael Ansell has at his disposal and includes first-choice Team UK keeper Andrew Hull alongside joint divisional top scorer Ed Brett. The team has shown a formidable defense across fixtures so far, conceding only 25 times ― 11 fewer than the next most frugal team, Revolution. This impregnability has been largely down to the Knights’ chasers and keepers, with clutch tackles and blocks reducing the success even of no-bludger offences against them.
For all their success, however, the Knights have struggled to organise the slick passing game their deep roster of talent promises. Poor movement and timing on offence has ensured anything more complex than a simple drive to the hoops achieves only a poor success rate, needing two or three passes before being converted. This has meant that offensively, Knights supporters have not yet seen the best of talents such as Hannah Watts, Claudio Svaluto, and Jemma Thripp. Nowhere was this more evident than with the absence of Hull in their second fixture, where a series of poorly-executed offences meant that the Knights laboured to what was a very unconvincing win against the Southwest Broadside, despite ending up with an ostensibly respectable score due to a long period of snitch play.
Questions are also outstanding in the Knights’ beater game. Anjit Aulakh has led the line superbly, but despite talents such as Natalie A’Bear, Imy Gregg, Kerry Aziz, and Gabri Hall-Rapanotti performing ably, there has been a tangible absence when he is not on pitch. Even with Aulakh, the Knights have in their finest moments been unable to equal the best beaters elsewhere in the division, and overall the team will be disappointed by a record of only 55 percent bludger control in games so far. They will need to demonstrate considerably more creativity and capacity to apply pressure to a beater defence if they are to really consolidate on their results against the London Monarchs, avoid risk of an upset by the tenacious Northern Watch beater line, or hold their own against the Revolution.
The Knights have proven decisive divisional winners on paper, but in reality, their meetings with the Monarchs have been inconclusive. The Knights have shown perhaps the slightly stronger hand overall, but it would be inaccurate to say they dominated the games at any point. What has seen them through undefeated is an excellent seeking record, with breakout seeker Brett in particular securing some crucial catches, and they will be hoping that his newfound talent, and a shoring up of a few other worries, can steer them to victory in Hull.
As Southern Division runners-up, the London Monarchs have shown many assets to take into the Championship, but they must ensure that their high-quality beater corps is levied to its full advantage if they are to have a successful weekend.
Managers facing the Monarchs will have to focus on their beater game. Their beater line is spearheaded by Alice Walker, Luke Twist, and Jan Mikolajczak, who between them boast an imperious 74 Team UK appearances and enjoyed 66 percent bludger control across their divisional games. Aggressive and confident in engagements, their beaters exhibited a high-energy style with gratuitous use of the bludger and a real territorial dominance of the pitch, which on occasions allowed the talents in the Monarchs’ quaffle game to shine due to the space and time it afforded them. The Monarchs’ trifecta of keepers — Alex Macartney, Jay Holmes, and Callum Humphreys — have an impressive 47 conversions among them but they by no means represent the only success of Ben Pooley’s team’s quaffle play. Their line has looked deep, malleable, and adaptable to all styles of play, supplementing their keepers’ playmaking with excellent secondary quaffle carriers in Ben Honey and Jackie Woodburn, counter-attacking pace courtesy of Alex Harrison and Alberto Garcia, and a veritable indulgence of first-class wide receivers such as Hannah Ridley, her sister Sarah, and Captain Asia Piatek. Pooley’s team deserve plaudits in a QPL season that has been dogged by controversy over the utilisation and inclusion of women in the quaffle game for the number of their hoops scored by women (21) and of individual women scorers (8), categories in which the Monarchs lead by quite a margin.
The Monarchs’ offence, then, is lethal enough to render them divisional top scorers. Add in their commanding control of the beater game and you paint a very strange picture of a team who by all rights should be divisional champions. Understanding why they are not requires a little more than just statistics ― the Monarchs have proven versatile, yes, but they do not yet seem to have a full grasp of the best way to play each game, and this has cost them under pressure. As they have struggled to find their feet and play themselves into games (or to adjust to a strategic change or interruption), they have seemed to fly rapidly through approaches with different objectives and tempo whilst the points rack up against them. The formidable Holmes has more than once rallied them from the brink of capitulation when this has set in, but it will need to be expunged entirely if they are to make the best of a difficult route to the trophy on August 26.
This frailty under pressure is compounded by the fact that for all their maintenance of control, the Monarchs’ beaters have shown a tendency to overextend, with much of their time with bludger control coming deep in the opposing half. This has been prone to leaving their team operating a defence without bludgers, and when this has been the case, the crucial tackles have often gone wanting.
Overall, the Monarchs have the makings of the strongest team in the South and could threaten a title challenge if they can consolidate their options to establish their best approach tactically and keep their heads when things do not work perfectly. Their divisional games have been a harsh lesson in how intelligent use of bludger control is just as crucial as maintaining it, and they will hope to make a better job of this in the final QPL games of 2017.
In a league with rather predictable performances across its fixtures, Southwest Broadside have represented the one true wildcard. They have the confidence and talent to punch above their weight under the right circumstances, but are likely to struggle to play consistently good enough quidditch to break into the top ranks at the Championship.
On first impressions, Connor Simpson’s outfit looked to be comfortably entangled in a scrap to avoid last place in their division. Their roster boasts a scattering of capable players who form the playmaking core of some of the less illustrious QuidditchUK teams and a corps of Bristol Quidditch Club veterans, but it was unclear how well the remarkable synchronicity and slick cohesion of the British Quidditch Cup (BQC) runners-up would translate into unfamiliar territory and, beyond them, only Team UK’s Lucy Edlund stood out as a truly elite player. In truth, however, Broadside not only disavowed any doubts about their ability to outperform divisional whipping boys Eastern Mermaids — despite a ropey second fixture that required a catch in overtime to seal the game in their favour — but traded blows admirably with the teams fully expected to overpower them.
Edlund has stood out from the crowd when she has been available to Simpson, but even in her absences, the Broadside beater game has not disappointed, with maverick chaser Sam Senior making an apparently seamless transition to the black headband and taking command of the pitch from his new role, which has had a noticeable impact on their organisation. His most formidable ally in this has been Graeme Zaple. Not exactly a household name in the UK scene, Zaple has across the summer nonetheless proven himself the equal of beaters far more renowned, exercising a confidence and aggression and making space for the Broadside offence, which has allowed Senior to grow into commanding from the rear.
Indeed, natural leadership runs deep in the Broadside squad without seeming to cause conflict. Beyond Senior and Edlund, Tom Ower, Chazz McLeod, and Josh Blannin all provide psychological stability and a sense of belief that saw the team run a Southeast Knights squad bereft of its primary playmaker Andrew Hull to a game that was only a fraction away from SWIM at the start of snitch–on–pitch. For all that, however, the individual flashes of genuine talent and undisputed self-belief have fallen short all too often when the team has been simply outclassed in raw ability.
They have shown themselves lacking both the distributors and receivers to implement a truly effective or dynamic offence, too often relying on simplistic approaches culminating in McLeod, Eddie Owsley, or Matteo Barraclough running unsupported at a defence, successfully or otherwise. Their own defence, whilst enthusiastic and well-drilled, lacks any real discipline, and a paucity of physically able and confident tacklers will cost them against the more physical northern teams with whom they will be competing in the mid-tier, spearheaded as they are by powerful driving players such as East Midlands Archers’ Tommy Ruler, Northern Watch’s Fraser Posford, and especially Josh Armitage of the Yorkshire Roses.
Broadside have certainly shown their fangs across the divisional games, and teams will be readily aware that they are not to be underestimated. Perhaps lacking the cohesion and technical skill to pose any real threat to the Championship favourites, they will nonetheless be setting their sights on a fifth-place berth that they will feel is very much within their means to secure if they can perform to the level we have seen so far.
Across the Southern Division fixtures, Sally Higginson’s Eastern Mermaids have given spirited performances with individual pockets of brilliance, but have simply fallen short in every department of the depth of quality required to secure results in a difficult division.
To reflect on a winless, last-place finish which is not unflattering to the Mermaids is not to dismiss any ability or promise they have shown across the three match days so far. The talent of both Tash Ferenczy and Dominic Ayre as playmakers with the quaffle is under no question for their time spent playing with a team unable to fully exploit it, and the previously unforeseen Alex Lewis has a total of seven goals to his name, a statistic that can be fully appreciated only in light of recognising it as a full quarter of the 28 that Mermaids managed over their nine divisional games. Falmouth Falcons’ Kat Jeffery has also reinforced her credentials as a commanding and intelligent player at keeper who simply lacks the physicality on both defence and offence to quite have the impact she consistently promises. Vincent Poon and Tom Hutton have also contributed strong individual performances that may yet impact upon the wider team, although Hutton’s discipline remains a problem, having been sent off in two of their nine divisional games.
Similarly, in the black headband, the Eastern team have demonstrated that in player-manager Higginson and BQC silver medallist Aaron Brett-Miller they have players capable of really commanding the pitch, but both have shown a lack of control in their plays and neither perform with the consistency that the Mermaids really need to establish themselves on the front foot in any of their games. If they are to make anything out of the Championship, Brett-Miller in particular will need to perform at his best across the day. A multifaceted and dominant player in his element, the Team UK beater has the potential to really lock down the midfield of a game and give his team a foothold around which to build, but too often cannot sustain this for as long as he is needed to without a dependable substitute.
Despite a single unlikely catch by Michael Holloway to force a valiant but unsuccessful overtime against Southwest Broadside, the Mermaids have been consistently outclassed throughout the Southern Division. They remain the most likely candidates for last place at the Championship and, having already shown themselves unable to defeat their southern rivals, also lack the depth both in quality of player and versatility of tactical options to realistically match any of the northern quartet ㅡ an opening fixture against top–scoring outfit West Midlands Revolution will certainly be a harrowing affair. Their likely double-elimination play-in rivals, the East Midlands Archers, are the only team with the same egregious lack of strength in depth as the Mermaids themselves, yet the indefatigable Bill Orridge has shown countless times his ability to single-handedly wrench a victory for his team and will likely prove the difference again despite the parity in personnel elsewhere in the two teams’ rosters.
A play-off game to avoid last place looms for the Mermaids, and in all likelihood they will find themselves squaring off with a Yorkshire Roses team who, in matching their final divisional ranking of fourth place, nonetheless still showed more than enough to make them favourites for such a meeting. Roses top scorer Josh Armitage brings a raw physicality and intelligence with the quaffle that will pose as many problems for the Mermaids as it will for Southwest Broadside. Despite propping up the northern rankings, the Roses have pulled off two deserved victories that have been beyond their southern counterparts and can be expected to prove too much for a Mermaids team who have rarely threatened in their own division.
Whatever their run-in for the bottom-half play-off, it is hard to imagine a team performing to an adequate standard would fail to put Mermaids to the sword. Mermaids’ games are by no means worth skipping, as the individual talent will still be present in their ranks and they are certainly an energetic team to watch, but one of the safest predictions to be made is that come Saturday evening in Hull, Mermaids will be the only team to finish QPL winless.
Whilst the West Midlands Revolution are undoubtedly the favourites to take the trophy north when all is said and done, it would be naive to discount the chance of it coming southward either to the South East or to London. Expect the Monarchs, if they can work to a firm game plan and refine the use of their bludgers, to give a stronger showing than the Knights team they thrice failed to beat in the division, although the nature of the bracket means that they will still likely finish third unless they can pull off a semifinal upset. With the cards stacked for Monarchs to meet Revolution in the semifinal, the Knights can confidently expect to be finalists but are unlikely to upset the favourites when they get there, and whilst Broadside will be hard-pressed to fight their way into the top four, their contest for fifth place against in all likelihood East Midlands Archers promises to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament. It would be far too bold to completely discount any success for the Mermaids, but they will be up against it from their first game and anything other than an eighth-place finish will be an achievement for them.