By James Burnett
The first ever QPL Championship will be held this Saturday, August 26 at KCOM Craven Park Stadium in Hull. With the Northern rankings now decided, the four teams will be looking to the Championship and reflecting on their previous nine games as they prepare to fight for the title both against one another and against the four teams from the Southern Division.
West Midlands Revolution
As the Northern Division champions, West Midlands Revolution enter the finals in a strong position as clear favourites to bring home the trophy. Managed by former Team UK captain Ben Morton, the team has shown exceptional strength in both its beater and quaffle games whilst conceding only two snitch catches.
The West Midlands chaser defense has been consistently strong, facilitating a high-intensity and aggressive style of play whilst still conceding only 36 goals in a division replete with counter-attacking prowess. On offence, their formidable strength in depth – including the top four scorers across both divisions – has achieved a formidable +1,170 point difference and 138 goals.
The Revolution keepers Seb Waters (23 goals) and James Thanangadan (22), both of Team UK, lead the scoring, and are supported by a healthy cadre of chasers with Team UK appearances aplenty between them. Deeper into their ranks, the talent is still prolific: Molly Maurice-Smith, far from being overawed on a star-studded team, has looked progressively more confident as the season has gone on; talented off-ball poacher Viral Patel has only looked stronger for being surrounded by the excellent Revolution distributors; and after a faltering season with Warwick Quidditch Club, Katy Lawrence’s performance in the final two divisional game days have shown that she is still a top-class player.
Excellent as their quaffle game is, however, it is the beaters who really set the tone of Morton’s squad. The team utilises their strong line up well, and any team hoping to trade blows with them must find a way to neutralize Lucy Q, fresh from a star performance in the UK’s European Games triumph and recently voted best beater in the world in the Quidditch Post Awards. She brings a ferocity and presence to the pitch with her raw athleticism, exceptional vision, and willingness to take risks to force openings, and her efforts provide bountiful opportunities for the team’s prolific chasers to flex their muscles. Her partners Jacopo Sartori and Dan Trick are cut from the same cloth, and although they have managed to maintain an overall bludger possession of 58 percent across their fixtures, this belies a sheer dominance of the pitch through bludger play. Whilst lacking the cutting-edge brilliance of Lucy, Sartori, and Trick, the remaining Revolution beaters leave very little to be desired and round out undoubtedly one of the best beating outfits competing for the trophy.
Where perhaps the team could be tripped up is in the ‘all or nothing’ approach they take to every play. Not inclined to play conservatively or calmly unless consciously instructed to – although they have shown this ability under duress – cracks have shown in their armour on occasion when a rare mistake or a piece of individual opposition brilliance has cost them quaffle possession whilst their team is overcommitted. As mentioned, they have relied on simply having more talented personnel than the opposition to compensate for this. This will likely remain true, albeit to a lesser degree, even as they come up against the stronger Southern teams, but it does leave the question as to whether, with the right performance, it could be exploited. The London Monarchs in particular have shown the same propensity to dominate space with their beaters, maintaining a higher control percentage whilst doing so, and if they can effectively fight the territory in the middle of the pitch, the usually free-flowing quaffle game of the Revolution might find itself encircled and cut apart.
As Northern Division runners-up, the Northern Watch have shown a strength that has only developed throughout the fixtures. The team enters the Championships with a 5-4 record, thrice beaten by the Revolution and also suffering a shock defeat in their first match with the Yorkshire Roses.The team managed and captained by Eddie Bruce were favourites for second place from early on and have brought a simple but direct and effective game to the division in the form of explosive driving chasers, and a technical beater game bent on frustrating and disrupting the opposition.
The Watch have overall displayed a patient approach to the game, and this has worked best when their own composure and discipline has matched the tactic they have been playing. Beaters Nye Baker and Mubariz Mujtaba, whilst sometimes coming under accusations for playing fast and loose with the rules, undoubtedly are incredibly effective at stamping out the creative freedom of their opposite numbers. Both mobile and highly talented in one-on-one beater duels, Bruce’s team have rarely played without one of the pair on pitch across all of their fixtures and have not looked the same team without them. Presenting a well-drilled and resilient chaser defence, marshalled superbly not only by Bruce but also former Team UK coach and captain Ashley Cooper, and Holyrood Hippogriffs strategist Ollie Riley, the Watch have enjoyed prodigious success simply in letting teams break upon their formation until, unable to make inroads against Baker and Mujtaba, frustration has led to a mistake or overcommitment which on the counter-attack they have been swift to punish.
When launching their counter-attacks, the Watch have been clinical. They have struggled to break down organised defences, but when the momentum has been with them Ollie Bridgen, Kelsey Silberman, and vice-captain Fraser Posford have all been potent. Posford in particular has led the line, following on from a strong performance for Spain at European Games with intelligent movement and short-range distribution, even in high-momentum drives, to make the North’s counter-attacks very challenging to defend.
Watch have also looked threatening in their seeking game, having caught six times throughout the fixtures. Star seeker Connor Climo’s four grabs leave him second-highest for catches across both divisions, and certainly the team will feel that any game they can remain competitive in up to the 20 minute mark is one they can win. The questions around this team are with respect to whether they can go the distance to give Climo a chance to win them games. Their stifling tactic has proven effective as they have grown into it, but must be expected to diminish in impact as teams grow wise to it, and the players forming the core of the Watch’s rivals for the podium are of the calibre which would be expected to keep their heads against a robust defence. If they can link up the pieces of their offence to threaten to score against set defences as well as they have shown it can work on the counter-attack, they may yet be able to threaten to snatch an unforeseen bronze medal and overcome the expectation of a fourth–place finish.
East Midlands Archers
In placing third in their division, the Archers have upset predictions which largely expected to see them at the bottom of the standings. The anticipated shallow roster and inability to adapt to any complex or developed tactical play has been every bit in evidence, but a series of heroic individual performances have hauled them to a third-place berth and their upcoming opponents must be respectful of the grit and tenacity this team has shown in fighting very hard and very effectively against unfavourable, sometimes overwhelming, odds. Nonetheless, they have a lot of frailties to overcome if they are to make any waves in the final standings.
No one team in QPL 2017 has been wholeheartedly defined by a single player in the way East Midlands Archers have been defined by Team UK captain Bill Orridge. They have lived and died by his efforts in both black and green headbands, and it was telling how poor their performances were and how little they threatened to win games in the fixture for which Orridge, and his brother 15-year old Michael, were absent. The Orridge brothers’ beating skills have posed a challenge even to the West Midlands Revolution beating line in forcing teams to act quickly and under extreme pressure in order to convert possession into hoops. When led by the Orridges, the Archers beaters have shown some promise on offence in clearing away opposing beaters and limiting the chance of tackles on the quaffle carrier whilst they travel up the pitch, and it is only the lack of a clinical goalscorer which has prevented them from converting a relatively high number of chances into a more impressive points total.
This need to commit so aggressively to create scoring opportunities has had its costs, however. In failing to be clinical, the Archers have had to resort to sheer numbers, throwing all of their beating weight behind creating enough chances that some of them, no matter how poor the conversion rate, would end up being scored, and this has left them with a desperately disappointing 37 percent bludger control across their fixtures as they have simply not had the option to play conservatively with their bludgers. For all the efforts of their primary keepers Tommy Ruler and Keiron Bishton, the Archers have simply not been able to make use of the space the Orridges – and deputies Rachel Lily and Brandon Fitz-Gerald – have given them, often falling in the final pass or in a tackle just before converting. It has only been when the elder Orridge has himself played at keeper that they have represented a viable scoring threat, with Bill’s commanding presence aiding Michael in clearing the way for his brother to cut in from the flanks and shoot from distance, which he achieves with remarkable precision. Despite plenty of Bill’s 14 hoops – a remarkable total for a player who has’t played in all nine of the team’s games, and plenty of that time at beater – coming in forlorn efforts to salvage games which the team went on to lose, they have nonetheless proven instrumental in the Archers’ final standings, as with equal 2-7 records they have edged ahead of the Roses on points differential by a margin of only 11 hoops, three fewer than their talisman’s total haul.
It is unfair to say the East Midlands roster lacks depth beyond the Orridges, but the talent they have simply hasn’t turned up, both figuratively and literally, to their fixtures so far. The team lacks the passing game to make effective use of talented receivers El Zukow and Steve Withers, and coveted utility player Franky Kempster has also not yet made her mark on a team that could really take advantage of her prowess at keeper. As it stands, the team have been very weak without the Orridge brothers, and it will take a lot more than those two alone to succeed at the Championship. They may be unable to avoid leaning on their beaters to tidy up a disorganized and patchy defence, but must find a way to pose a consistent and dangerous scoring threat with their star player in his preferred black headband, hopefully locking down a greater share of bludger control in doing so. Even if they can accomplish this, do not look to them to cause any serious upsets; their beating around the snitch has been lethargic and disorganized, costing them a SWIM result against the Northern Watch in their penultimate divisional game, and a record of two out of nine snitch catches does not engender confidence in their seekers. Without the ability to demonstrate dimensions other than falling into line behind one of the best players in the world, they will struggle to confidently defeat any team besides the Eastern Mermaids, and although a tense and exciting contest for fifth place against Southwest Broadside is to be anticipated, the Eastern team will realistically be aspiring to a sixth place finish at best, despite what Bill Orridge can do.
Matching the East Midlands Archers’ two wins to seven losses across the divisional fixtures, the Yorkshire Roses nonetheless finished last in the North, losing out on points differential to the Archers as a result of a heavy 180*-30 defeat in their final fixture against the Archers despite having beaten divisional runners-up Northern Watch in their first meeting.
Managed by Peggy Cook and captained by Josh Armitage the team have deployed a brute force approach to their offences, accounting well for a dearth of technical skill or tactical nous by relying simply on large, physical quaffle drivers to punish defensive frailties and exploit bludgerless pitches. Approximately half of their 51 conversions are accountable to just two players, Armitage and Michael Lewis, who have been the battering rams with which the Yorkshire team have smashed through unprepared defences. Armitage in particular has proven that he is as deserving as ever of his long-time epithet ‘Titan,’ powering through even the elite Team UK tacklers of the West Midlands Revolution when the opportunity to do so has presented itself.
The team is confident in the tackle – sometimes too much so, losing Lewis to the only direct red card of the Northern Division early on in one of their final set of games – and are not the easiest to drive through head-on, but this is undercut by a lack of any defensive shape or real ability to lock out a team positionally. Their marking has proven lacklustre, even in a division where quality passing and wide movement has been lacking, and this has led to them being the only team in the division to concede more than 100 hoops across their nine games. Whilst the offensive prowess of the Southern teams they will face represents nothing they haven’t endured up north, they have been unconvincing in defence all season and the more frugal Southern offences may well relish the chance to play with freedom and aggression against a team that seems so unable to keep out strong attacking play.
The Roses hold the dubious distinction of being the only QPL squad in the 2017 series that cannot field a single player from anywhere in the Team UK setup. Indeed, barring utility player Lee Baughan, who was a reserve for the World Cup squad in 2014, they do not even have a national team veteran to call upon, and although Baughan features in the Roses squad they have yet to play for them in a fixture. Compounding this, the Roses have representation from only a limited number of QuidditchUK clubs, none of whom have played at an elite level. The most high-level experience upon which they can draw is a scattering of British Quidditch Cup quarterfinal appearances courtesy of a few of the Leeds Griffins contingent. Whether this is causal or consequential is up for debate but nevertheless the shortcomings are evident; the Roses’ game has lacked flair, nuance, and any dimension beyond opportunistic, unstructured beating and aggressive physical quaffle drivers.
Although in terms of possession percentile they contend with the Watch for second highest in the division at 53 percent, the lesson from the Roses beaters is ultimately that a respectable level of bludger control does not necessarily indicate a useful or effective performance in the beater game. Zac Chave-Cox, James Gratton, and Francesca Brittain have looked the most promising of a lacklustre bunch but although all of them have shown that they have individual potential and reasonable technical ability – especially Gratton, who has performed well in isolated duels against far more reputable players – there has been no structure or coherence to the way they’ve played. The lack of experience and capable leadership in the squad has meant that even when their lively beaters have hit a good spell, it has never been turned with any organization to ends productive to the team. Instead, the approach seems always to have been to simply be constantly doing something, in the hope that eventually a resulting something will happen and an opening will present itself for Armitage to drive home. This has had more success that it may have done with many other quaffle bearers, but demonstrably is not enough to outweigh the effects of more cultured and measured offences against the Roses’ disorganised back line. The team can probably anticipate that, despite being outmatched in the beater game by the talented Aaron Brett-Miller when they play Eastern Mermaids in the seventh-place play-off, the Eastern team’s complete inability to deal with physical offences will still allow Armitage and Lewis to carry the day, but against all other Southern teams, as with their rivals in the north, it will simply not be enough to produce results.
It does bear mentioning that the Roses fell tantalisingly short of causing an incredible upset in their fourth game, when they pushed the West Midlands Revolution hard to get out of range, and were only 40 points down when Valentin Trabis cold caught. The reasons for this are unclear – a miscommunication between Trabis and his bench or a lack of belief in themselves to claw back into range, depending on who you ask – but it does perhaps present a glimmer of hope in an otherwise damning record. That said, the labours of that game ultimately say far less about the Roses as they do of the Revolution team on the day, with star players Lucy Q and Tom Stevens absent and a number of their other heavyweights well below match fitness for the game. It is no revelation that Armitage and Lewis can drive through even the Revolution defence when allowed to, but a circumstantially poor performance from the Revolution allowing more such opportunities whilst being desperately sloppy on their own offences should not give any expectation of a similar upset against a full strength and fully fit team of this calibre on Saturday.
The Northern Division comes into the QPL Championships with a curious juxtaposition. Divisional winners West Midlands Revolution are clear favourites to take the title home, but no other team in the region can really be said to have a credible chance of doing so. The Revolution will be competing against the Southeast Knights and London Monarchs, winners and runners-up in the Southern Division, for the gold and must expect to have to defeat both in order to do so. An upset is definitely possible in either game, but realistically no other squad travelling to Hull has a top level player across the beater, seeker, and quaffle games to match Morton’s even for short periods, let alone the strength in depth to go the distance across a full day’s play. Expect the team to be bitterly disappointed with anything short of an undefeated run to the trophy.
The Watch will be hoping for a strong day ending in a bronze medal victory, but ultimately are not likely to find a way past either of the Southern frontrunners and should be expected to finish in fourth place, without playing many particularly close games. Archers’ prospects point them squarely at the lower play-offs, and though what we have seen from them so far will be enough to see off the Eastern Mermaids and put them in the fight for fifth place, it is hard to see them overcoming their likely opponents there, Southwest Broadside. The Yorkshire Roses face a frustrating set of games which will be difficult from start to finish, almost certainly culminating in a scrappy but exciting seventh-place playoff against a Mermaids team who they should be able to defeat, although the game does not promise to be a benchmark for high-quality quidditch.