with contributions from James Burnett, Ashara Peiris, and Gavin Hughes
Southern Cup 2017, the first of the UK’s two annual Regional Championships which double as qualifiers for both the British Quidditch Cup (BQC) and the European Quidditch Cup (EQC) in the first half of 2018, takes place this weekend. For the second consecutive year, Millbrook Rugby Club in Southampton plays host to the event, as Warwick Quidditch Club look to defend their 2016 title against a menacing array of challengers. With brooms up only a day away, we explore seven individual players to look out for (with a focus on underrated or up-and-coming talent), as well as five interesting narratives, three of the most exciting teams, and ultimately, of course, a prediction of who will be the Southern Cup 2017 champions.
SEVEN Rising Stars
Rosie Inman – Werewolves of London, Chaser by Ashara Peiris
As someone who flew under the radar for the Swansea Swans last season, Inman made significant progress over the summer months, which included being the top scorer for the Irish national team at the European Games and being the MVP for Ireland at the tournament in Odense. Now playing for the Werewolves of London, she has impactfully slotted into the chaser rotation with consistent catch-and-drive ability near the hoops.
Inman will undoubtedly form a crucial part of the Werewolves’ success, and whilst she will have to compete with other talented chasers such as Lydia Calder and Natasha Ferenczy, Inman will want to cement her place with an emphatic performance at Southern Cup and potentially gain access to the Team UK Expansion Squad.
Tayyeb Ali – Warwick Quidditch Club (Whomping Willows), Beater by James Burnett
An exciting débutant for Warwick in 2016-17, Ali was not part of the squad that claimed the club’s first major trophy at Southern Cup 2016 but made quick strides thereafter to become an integral part of the Willows’ beater corps for both BQC and EQC. His pace, reactions, and acrobatic flair earned him a Team UK Expansion Squad berth in his first season.
Understudy to the highly talented Jacopo Sartori, Ali will feature prominently in Warwick’s beater game this season with the loss of both Hannah Dignum and Nadhirah Anwar. With Sartori still shouldering the pressure of producing game-winning performances, Ali will have the freedom to shine alongside him. If he can show an improved physical side to his game and continue to refine his instinct for turning defence into offence, his slippery skills in one-on-ones and majestic leaps to avoid opposing beats could be game-changing, especially around the snitch.
Ellinor Alseth Opsal – Falmouth Falcons, Keeper by Ashara Peiris
Despite playing for two seasons, Alseth Opsal had been a relative unknown for the Falcons until an emphatic performance at Highlander Cup V brought her squarely into the limelight. Alseth Opsal showcased strong ball handling, regularly making long pinpoint passes to her receivers. Notably, she has also continued the tradition of Falmouth’s physicality, often throwing out big hits, including a crushing tackle on Nye Baker on a drive.
Now with more eyes on her than before, she will have to show that she can demonstrate her athleticism and intelligence under pressure.
Outi Valkonen – London Unspeakables, Chaser/Seeker by James Burnett
One of the most exciting prospects to emerge at Development Cup 2017 at Oxford, the London club’s Finnish starlet made the step up to the first team at Highlander Cup V with confidence and flair. Following a strong showing in Oxford, she made several match-winning snitch catches against internationally capped seekers as part of the winning Mercian Cup team, demonstrating prowess in both of her positions.
Valkonen’s height and upper body strength are natural assets, making her adept at grappling with snitches and quaffle opponents alike, and she displays an instinct for movement in tight quarters to find space around the hoops. Working well with the Unspeakables’ quaffle distributors, at Highlander Cup she appeared to have eschewed the inconsistency in catching and converting around the hoops which previously limited her ability as an off-ball chaser. Still early in her development, Valkonen could well take Southern Cup 2017 by storm as she continues her development into a top-class player.
Lewis Dixon – Bath Quidditch Club (Bathilisks), Keeper by James Burnett
A casual follower of the UK game would be forgiven for not knowing Lewis Dixon, but his team’s rivals for second place in Group E – the Portsmouth Horntail Strikers and Norwich Nifflers – would do well to take note. Dixon’s injury was a pivotal blow in the Bathilisks’ below-par finish at Development Cup 2017, and he recently made a sparkling impact amongst far more experienced players at Barcelona Moustaches Time 2017.
Dixon’s game lacks nuance, but he is a new player on a team that is unlikely to have given him the training he needs to excel; I hope to see him learn from his third full weekend of competitive play. What he does, he does excellently: his explosive pace, quick feet, and clinical finishing on drives compliment a strength that belies his slight frame and gives him a real venom when unleashed against disorganised or overcommitted teams. With a good weekend and a bit of luck, Dixon could lead the Bathilisks into an unforeseen upper bracket run.
Marcus Toh Shen-Li – Warwick Quidditch Club, Chaser by Gavin Hughes
Nicknamed “Salmon Boy” for his habit of spectacularly leaping in the air to throw off opposing chasers, Marcus Toh Shen-Li has always looked impressive on pitch, but historically this has failed to translate into much meaningful impact. He is prone to injury and has spent much of his career languishing in lower brackets, whether it has been with Cambridge University Quidditch Club or the Eastern Mermaids. However, a move to Warwick Quidditch Club this season may signal a change for Shen-Li.
Traditionally a primary quaffle handler by necessity, he has the makings of a far stronger off-ball player with excellent pace and acceleration, intuitive positioning, and consistent round-hoops play. As part of a system like Warwick’s, featuring a world class distributor in Seb Waters and a pass-heavy style of play, Shen-Li could find the support he needs to finally excel and make an impression upon the sport. Few will expect him to appear in Warwick’s starting six at Southern Cup, but his development with the Willows as the season progresses will certainly be worth watching.
George Whiting – Bristol Brizzlebears, Beater/Seeker by Gavin Hughes
Now entering their second season with the Bristol Brizzlebears, George Whiting is beginning to garner a reputation – and with good reason. They were one of only three newcomers on Bristol’s silver medal-winning team at BQC 2017, and have returned to the club this season with a wealth of EQC and QPL experience to bolster their raw aptitude for the sport.
Notable for their speed, precision beating, on-pitch intelligence, and calmness under pressure, as well as their utility as a seeker learnt from time spent playing for the Brizzlebees, Whiting is Bristol’s natural foil to the hyper-physical Aaron Brett-Miller. As Brett-Miller continues to impress, retaining a spot on the Team UK Training Squad, Whiting’s play is likely to also improve, and the possibility of an expansion squad position after a strong showing at Southern Cup should not be out of the question.
FIVE Talking Points
Can Warwick Trade on Past Glories? by James Burnett
In retaining the services of many stars from last year – including Seb Waters, Theo Baldwin-Evans, Luke Trevett, Jonathan Purvis, and Ben Malpass – and acquiring French national chaser Agathe Delépine, Warwick Quidditch Club have demonstrated clear ambitions to remain a competitive force in the 2017-18 season. This is contrary to expectations at the end of last year, when it was widely considered that 2016-17 was to be the squad’s swan song before their core dispersed.
Still, despite a Southern Cup win last campaign, Warwick exited in the quarterfinals at both BQC and EQC, and the struggle for Dina Caruso’s side only increases as the years roll on. Last year’s Southern Cup was accurately predicted to be a two-horse race, but this year the Willows face competition not only from Simon Bidwell’s Werewolves of London but also other challengers in the form of Bristol and Southampton Quidditch Cup (SQC). To win, they must prevail without players such as Nadhirah Anwar and Kat Jack, who made such important contributions in Southampton last season.
The near-legendary trio of Waters, Trevett, and Malpass is undiminished in quality and will doubtless seek to defend the title, whilst Purvis remains a clinical seeker. However, the team around them is just a little bit less potent than last year and has more to do if they are to remain regional champions. Such is the quality of their best players that it is not impossible, but it will take a weaker Warwick side putting in a stronger performance for them to repeat what they achieved in 2016.
New Era, Old Rivals by James Burnett
In days gone by, the prospect of a meeting between Southampton Quidditch Club and the Radcliffe Chimeras was tantalizing: two top teams, three BQC titles between them, and more than a few fiery encounters. Since their last meeting, an uninspiring 80*-50 win for SQC in October 2015, the rivalry between the two teams has fizzled out, as have their competitive fortunes. But there are hints that they might be resurgent forces this season.
SQC proved in pre-season that they have the talent and tactical development to challenge top teams and will be competing for the title this season, with Bex Lowe, Ben Guthrie, and Aaron Veale providing a huge boost to a squad already containing quality such as Anjit Aulakh. SQC are once again a force to be reckoned with, especially with the confirmed return of their BQC-winning talisman Ollie Craig.
The Chimeras will not be punching at quite the same level – yet – but still, expect a competitive and upwardly mobile performance from them. Alice Walker, Mark Richards, and Hannah Watts are all consistent and game-changing players, and more understated talent such as Sam Wainwright, Daniel Winter, and Thuva Mathetharan are also starting to gel into what is looking like a really talented team. They have the rub of the green with an eminently winnable group, and have also acquired Canadian national team chaser Jonathan Parent. We seem once again to be looking at a Chimeras side capable of a deep upper bracket run, and for whom an underdog push for EQC qualification may not be entirely out of the question.
The Squeeze For BQC Places by Gavin Hughes
Just as the top teams are feeling the strain on their EQC hopes by the reduction in available spaces, so too are some of the well-established low-to-mid tier teams, like Norwich Nifflers, Exeter Quidditch Club, and Cambridge University Quidditch Club, becoming aware that with the increased number of entrants at the regional championship, they may not qualify for BQC.
Group E has not favoured the Norwich Nifflers, saddling them with the stoic journeymen Portsmouth Horntail Strikers and the upstart Bathilisks, both of whom look poised to end the East Anglian side’s hopes of a favourable Day Two draw, and consequently, a BQC berth. Indeed, the Bathilisks, now armed with the tactical experience of Anthony Tatman, also pose a credible threat to Portsmouth’s upper bracket chances, and will at the very least rob them of maximum point differential for day two. If Portsmouth do consign Bath to the lower bracket, we can expect to see the Development Cup graduates displace at least a couple of BQC veteran teams, probably the likes of the Oxford Quidlings and Bristol Brizzlebees, in the fight for qualification spaces.
The squeeze is also likely to be felt acutely in Group C, where either Exeter or Cambridge will find themselves scrabbling for BQC qualification on Day Two. Exeter’s squad is heavily depleted from last season, while Cambridge have a reputation for pulling upsets, after they shocked the Nottingham Nightmares at BQC 2017. With the prospect of a lower bracket draw that will probably include a reinvigorated Reading Knights squad and the aforementioned Bath and Portsmouth teams, Exeter and Cambridge have every reason to sweat about their BQC futures, and Day One will be crucial for their season trajectories.
International Ambitions by James Burnett
The scramble for EQC qualification spots is just as exciting this year, with only the two finalists progressing to the continental tournament in April. They will be joined in Pfaffenhofen by their Northern UK counterparts, but the Southern contest is much more exciting, with several teams carrying the weight of expectation and possibility into their attempts to qualify.
The seemingly pre-ordained top four ― Southampton, Werewolves, Warwick, and Bristol ― all have healthy EQC pedigrees; the Werewolves are the only member of the quartet not to have made multiple appearances, and they boast a bronze medal finish in Mechelen last season from their only competition overseas despite being the youngest of the four. The final will decide the regional champion, but the semifinals will perhaps be as fiercely fought, with the prestige of European competition arguably more coveted by some of the athletes involved. To go into too much detail about their relative chances would be to pre-empt a comment on the eventual champions, but suffice it to say that amongst the four favourites heading to Millbrook the margins are so small that any one or two individually brilliant performances stand to be decisive. There are players on each team ― Seb Waters, Asia Piatek, David Goswell, and Bex Lowe, to name just a few ― who have more than enough quality to compete in a European setting and will be fighting hard to ensure they have that privilege in 2018.
As for dark horses, the older among us will remember that the London Unspeakables and the Radcliffe Chimeras both have European experience, with the Chimeras even having a title to their name from 2014. To say they would be overperforming would be to put it mildly, but with the Chimeras afforded a group that may allow them to seed highly for the bracket, and the Unspeakables poised to upset the Brizzlebears for first place in their group, it would only take one or two further upsets for either to make an unforeseen return to the European stage. Stranger things have happened at Southern Cup (most of them to Southampton).
The D Factor by James Burnett
Whilst the second day of Southern Cup 2017 promises excitement throughout, from BQC qualification play-ins to games with European placement and silverware on the line, there seems comparatively little at stake on Day One. Undoubtedly, the most anticipated game of Saturday is the match-up between the first and second seeds in Group D, respectively the Bristol Brizzlebears and London Unspeakables. These two teams enjoyed strong Southern Cup appearances in 2016, with the Bristol team winning the bronze medal with a 110*-30 defeat of the Londoners in the penultimate game of the weekend.
Both will be hoping to repeat that performance, but to remain in serious contention for a podium position and EQC qualification on Sunday they will not only have to navigate the tricky match against one another, but also strive to do so with healthy enough tie-breakers to avoid a punishing route to glory in the seedings for the championship bracket. The game itself promises to be tense, as both teams have their share of quality and good retention of talent from last year, but their tactics and temperament have proven to be less than consistent over the past few seasons. Where the Brizzlebears have the most talented beater between them in Aaron Brett-Miller, a broad scope of talent amongst their leading figures in the quaffle game, and a natural leader as well as prominent seeker in David Goswell, they often lack focus and concentration under pressure and will be missing one of their most talented chasers in the injured Abby Whiteley. The Unspeakables, meanwhile, will be drawing on a smaller pool of talent really capable of pulling their weight in big games, and must contend with the propensity for key players Monique Davis, Matt Bateman, and Alex Macartney to lose their discipline when games turn against them. However, the pace of their quaffle lineup and sheer physicality of Macartney may be enough to put the game to bed once the snitch is in play and the Brizzlebears’ beaters more thinly stretched. Bristol naturally have the advantage, but it’s a close one to call and promises to sprinkle some excitement on a Saturday which otherwise threatens to be something of a dead rubber.
THREE Exciting Teams
The London Unspeakables by Gavin Hughes
A year on from their breakout performance at Southern Cup 2016, which included upsets against the Falmouth Falcons and Southampton Quidditch Club on the way to a fourth place finish, the London Unspeakables look stronger than ever. They have retained much of their core roster from last season while picking up a few valuable transfers over the summer. Alex Macartney, historically a one-dimensional quaffle driver, is developing into a very effective distributor and playmaker, allowing interplay with deadly receivers such as Alberto Garcia Salvador and Outi Valkonen and diversifying London’s offence away from an overreliance on using bludger control to clear driving lanes. Last season, the Unspeakables also depended heavily upon Matt Bateman in the seeker game, but with the additions of Kieran Newton and Fabian Brunt to the squad they now boast a lot more depth in this area. With the option now to field Bateman as beater-on-snitch, their already-impressive SWIM record is likely to improve further.
The Unspeakables will be champing at the bit for a rematch against the Brizzlebears after their EQC qualification playoff defeat last season, and if they pull a group stage win then they could find themselves with a relatively clear path to a semifinal berth.
Bath Quidditch Club by Gavin Hughes
Since their founding last year, the Bathilisks have come a long way. They failed to make an appearance at Southern 2016, instead relying on monthly South-West Quidditch League fixtures to develop tactically and patiently iron out the weaknesses in their game, before making their tournament debut at Development Cup in April, where they finished a respectable third despite injuries and showed flashes of genuine promise. For much of the season they played a well-drilled compact defence, limiting significantly stronger teams like the Swansea Swans to fewer than a hundred quaffle points, but showed a degree of rigidity and slowness to adapt that often hurt their quaffle play once snitch was on pitch. For example, their South-West Quidditch League game against Falmouth was 90-40 when seekers were released, and ultimately ended 210*-40 in Falmouth’s favour.
What is exciting about the Bathilisks is how quickly they’ve learnt from these defeats, with their Development Cup campaign boasting much-improved snitch-on-pitch play and a standout seeker performance from Luke Rose. Just last month they confidently put the Brizzlebees to the sword, overturning the 2016-17 season’s South-West League defeat. Their quaffle attack, spearheaded by Lewis Dixon, has the capacity to wreak havoc upon poorly organised and inexperienced defenses, and with the added on-pitch intelligence of Anthony Tatman, their game could find the sophistication this season that it needs to challenge the better-drilled and more talented teams that populate the mid-to-top tier of the UK game. If Bath don’t make the upper bracket at Southern, don’t expect them to go quietly.
Southampton Quidditch Club by James Burnett
In the run-up to the pre-season Battle Royale II, I predicted a disappointing showing from Southampton prefacing a disappointing season. I daresay I implicitly challenged them to prove that they had a new dimension to their quaffle game, and it was a challenge to which they absolutely rose. Aaron Veale reinvented himself as a keeper to pull the strings, and along with Bex Lowe, Ben Guthrie, and Fraser Posford, seamlessly slotted in to fill key gaps in last year’s outfit. They will be keen to prove that the formidable scalps they claimed and came close to claiming during their last appearance at Millbrook were not simply a flash in the pan. Aside from their menacing array of beating talent and the aforementioned returnees at chaser and keeper, SQC also bear mentioning due to the tantalising prospect of a return from retirement of Team UK veteran Ollie Craig. It remains to be seen whether this is a committed return to serious competition from a keeper/seeker who, at his peak, was a European star with multiple international medals and personal accolades to show for it, but even if Craig is making a more relaxed comeback he cannot have lost all of the stature, strength, pace, and vision ― not to mention his ferocity in the tackle ― which made him such an outstanding force in his day. From relative obscurity, the hosts now have a dangerous-looking roster to call upon.
Three years removed from a national title, SQC has reasserted itself off of a strong showing at Battle Royale 2 | Photo credit: Rica Biasi
by James Burnett
Rising stars, resurgent teams, and EQC qualification aside, the question still remains: who will leave Millbrook as champions this year? Last season saw Warwick outstrip the Werewolves of London 40*-20 in a cagey final, and we can expect both teams to be in the mix this year. Alongside them will be hosts Southampton, fresh from a strong showing at Battle Royale II in mid-October, and last year’s bronze medalists the Brizzlebears may also threaten an upset. With each of the four teams boasting a formidable first line of quaffle players but perhaps lacking strength in depth or diversity, I would be surprised if the final or either semifinal ended out of snitch range.
If the title is to be carried on a snitch catch, then the field is wide open. Warwick perhaps have an edge in Jonathan Purvis, the foremost seeker in play, but although he made the winning catch last season, none of Purvis’ counterparts are lacking in quality. When all is said and done, the most decisive factor in who wins Southern Cup this season is likely to be which team’s beaters enjoy the best day around the snitch. Whether they play together for impact or alternate for staying power, each team has a truly formidable duo with plenty of high-level experience ― Jacopo Sartori and Tayyeb Ali for Warwick, Jan Mikolajczak and Natalie A’Bear for Werewolves, Anjit Aulakh and Ben Guthrie for SQC, and Aaron Brett-Miller and George Whiting for the Brizzlebears. These personal battles are likely to decide the tournament, and although all of them have the potential to be match-winning, it is hard to look past Aulakh and Guthrie for consistency, talent, and diversity of skills, especially assisting the expeditious Alex Carpenter in the yellow headband. They also are likely to be best rested for decisive games, with skilled deputies in Kerry Aziz and Imy Gregg able to do their fair share of heavy lifting, and as a team the hosts proved their mettle at Battle Royale II. SQC are favourites to win.