By James Burnett
Editor’s Note: Quidditch Post would like to extend our thanks to QuidditchUK for cooperating with us in sharing an early-release version of the World Cup squad to allow us to write this article in advance of the full release.
QuidditchUK have today announced their full, 25-strong roster for the IQA World Cup 2018. Featuring an exciting crop of newcomers alongside some of the most experienced hands in the country on the international scene, the squad shows the potential to make a deep run in the tournament. Here, we will look at some of the most exciting stories in the team selection (including some notable absentees), shine a spotlight on the athletes who will be aiming to bring gold back to the UK come summer, and consider the continuities and divergences from the teams of past years.
But first, the UK roster for Florence 2018:
Andrew Hull | Seb Waters (captain) | Alex Greenhalgh
Anjit Aulakh | Kerry Aziz | Alex Carpenter | Jan Mikolajczak | Jess O’Neill | Bill Orridge | Lucy Q | Jacopo Sartori
Ed Brett | Ash Cooper | Franky Kempster | Bex Lowe | Ben Malpass | Tom Norton | Asia Piatek | Tom Stevens | James Thanangadan | Reuben Thompson | Jemma Thripp | Luke Trevett | Jackie Woodburn
Emily Oughtibridge (head coach) | James Thanangadan | Lucy Q | Ben Morton | Jay Holmes | Dave Goddin | Alice Walker | Dan Trick | Asia Piatek | Tommy Morgan
One of the first impressions of this squad is just how deep the international pedigree runs. The three most experienced hands — Andrew Hull, Jan Mikolajczak, and Jemma Thripp — boast just shy of 100 international appearances amongst them alone, and although for seven of the squad this will be their first major outing playing for the current European champions, there are still a total of 44 previous tournaments attended for the UK amongst the roster. With a podium finish from the 2016 World Cup in Frankfurt to go alongside their European title, this is a group of players with prodigious experience playing alongside one another at a high level and with great success on the international stage.
At the centre of the squad is a battle-hardened core who have been part of every UK team stretching back at least to the IQA European Games (EG) 2015 in Sarteano. The aforementioned trio of Hull, Mikolajczak, and Thripp all go back to the 2014 IQA Global Games in Burnaby while Lucy, Orridge, Lowe, and Woodburn all debuted in their country’s silver–medal run in Italy three years ago. Despite the intense escalation in competition internationally and the fierce competition for spots, these seven have been ever-present at the heart of a high-performing UK team which has increased its profile with each successive outing, and inevitably will be the focal point of the UK’s approach to Florence 2018. Hull’s stature in the team might be somewhat reduced due to his antipodean excursions in the months leading up to the event, but his commanding presence, physical power, and sharp distribution will still be something Emily Oughtibridge and her coaching team will be able to depend on. Chasers Lowe, Woodburn, and Thripp cover a wide range of options between them, with Thripp a technically exceptional tackler and masterful off-ball offensive threat, and Woodburn and Lowe both tenacious in the defensive melee and intelligent in-field with possession. When it comes to their old hands in the black, Jan Mikolajczak is one of the most natural individual talents active in the game today. Mikolajczak, fresh from a world-class performance in the semifinals of British Quidditch Cup (BQC) 2018, will fit readily into any system or scenario on pitch, his versatility as much as his technical brilliance the reason he has been called up for every tournament for which he has been available. Lucy Q and Orridge, meanwhile, are amongst the most innovative and high-intensity beaters in the world, relied upon to generate much of the team’s momentum and rightly feared for their dominance in snitch-on-pitch play in particular. The Velociraptors QC duo’s partnership was not only pivotal in securing a complete lockdown during the EG 2017 final, but also allowed former Team UK captain Ben Morton to catch twice in a thrilling overtime fightback against Warwick QC to take home the recent British Quidditch Cup.
Rumours of retirement abound amongst the old guard every summer — of course, invariably anticlimactic as the majority continue strong into the next season. Whatever the truth in the rumours after this year, as some veterans of four or five international campaigns reach or pass the peaks of their illustrious careers, the country can rest easy in those now lining up alongside them for their third or fourth tournaments in the UK shirt and carving out their own berth in the squad. Chasing powerhouse Thanangadan, returning for his third successive international tournament this summer, is renowned for both the ferocity of his defensive plays and his explosive drives down the centre of the field to execute the devastating counter-attacks which underpin his play at both club and international level. Captaining the team, seminal playmaker Seb Waters is rapidly becoming one of the UK’s most fundamental players, likely to be the team’s primary keeper in Italy, and is feared for his patient reading of the game, agility in close quarters, and unparalleled distribution. His Warwick QC teammate Ben Malpass is also set to become firmly established as he makes his second consecutive tournament appearance for the team, driven and deft both on- and off-ball and enjoying an instinctive chemistry with Waters which knows few equals in the game worldwide. Tom Stevens, a breakout star of the Oslo 2017 triumph and probably the best chaser in Europe at the time of writing, and Jess O’Neill, quietly dependable and a calming influence in the UK’s beater game, are also likely names to be found on Team UK rosters for years to come, painting a promising picture of a well-rounded national outfit with a well-established yet fluid core able to outlast the changing of the guard.
The presence of this formidable foundation to the UK’s national squad, at the same time both dependable and dynamic, is the result of the intensely maintained and well-established training structure beginning to bear fruit. The UK has consistently led the way in the infrastructure behind its national squad, with the permanent Training Squad (established in 2015) and Expansion Squad (established in 2016) both the first of their kind in the world. Older players have been forced to keep pace and improve as the game develops, while newer talent integrates and becomes established seamlessly alongside them — testament to the successes of this system, which incorporates more coaches than some national squads at World Cup 2016 had players. The Expansion Squad is especially important in this: with the Training Squad focussed on immediate preparation for national gameplay, Jay Holmes’ programme has the freedom to work on building up raw talent and instilling core disciplines and tactical principles into promising players. The hand of Holmes and his team is evident in several of the players who stand to debut for Team UK in Florence. Reuben Thompson, a physically formidable chaser/seeker with a thunderous tackle, joins the wiry and versatile Ed Brett and the dauntless Asia Piatek as chasers who have drawn directly on the Expansion Squad process to fuel their unfaltering progress to the top level of the sport, and are set to make an exciting impact on the international scene. Beater Anjit Aulakh, scion of a new era of prodigious talent from the evergreen Southampton Quidditch Club, is also a wholehearted product of the Expansion Squad and, despite his manic and high-velocity style sometimes struggling for consistency, is capable of dazzling highs which can make him virtually unplayable.
Piatek, it should be noted, is not an international newcomer, having competed for her native Poland in Oslo in 2017, but this should not detract from the scale of her achievements (and the influence of the UK’s coaching set up) in making the significant step up to such a high-level national squad as the UK’s. In a similar vein is Kerry Aziz, erstwhile of Ireland, but who has rightfully earned her spot on the UK’s roster for the first time after a season of seemingly unrestrained development which has seen her go from strength to strength in her athletic ability, technical prowess, and tactical approach to the game. The Southampton beater is in sparkling form at the moment, and will make an immediate impact if she carries that into the World Cup.
Oughtibridge’s team will have two more debutants this summer: Franky Kempster and Jonathan Purvis. Both are established figures around the Team UK outfit, and it is testament to their ability, work ethic, and dedication to improve that they have finally earned their chance after so long on the fringes. Kempster even represented the team in a series of friendly games in Odense in October 2016, but has never played a major tournament internationally before, while Purvis will hope to take the opportunity of an injury to EG-winning seeker Callum Lake as an opportunity to prove that he can bring his impressive record of game-winning catches for Warwick QC to the international stage. Again, the presence of such domestically experienced, high-quality athletes waiting in the wings to step into the roster after so long speaks volumes to the effectiveness of the Team UK set up. The challenge of maintaining a place in the team in the face of such competition is integral to keeping the level of the team so high.
In keeping with the intensity of competition for a roster spot, there are plenty on this year’s squad deserving of plaudits either for defending their position against formidable challengers or for clawing their way back into the fold after a season or more out of favour. Perennially on the fringes, Werewolves of London playmaker Alex Greenhalgh has this year earned his first call-up since 2014, having made a significant step up with his reading of the game, distribution, and short-range finishing this season. Although the keeper will likely serve as deputy to Waters and Hull, expect him to get his fair share of time on the field throughout the UK’s run as he demonstrates the extent to which he has revitalised his game in this, his sixth season playing. Greenhalgh’s club teammate Tom Norton will also line up for the team in Florence for the first time since captaining the UK to their second–place finish at EG 2015 on the strength of a formidable showing at BQC this year after some patchy runs of form in recent years. A potentially surprising exclusion from the Oslo 2017 squad, beater/seeker Alex Carpenter also makes a deserved return. Although unlikely to be a core player, her raw pace and versatility in two headbands will provide options from the sub box for the team’s tacticians. The final player making his return from the wilderness, Luke Trevett, also played in 2016, and brings an effortless synergy with Warwick QC teammates Malpass and Waters as well as an outstanding defensive instinct and exceptional tackle despite lacking the offensive versatility of some of the more established members of the team.
Jacopo Sartori also returns to the squad, having been a part of the previous two European Games campaigns either side of a World Cup for which he was not selected. An excellent beater in his own right, the Italian has been unfortunate to be consistently competing with the exceptional talents which compose the UK beater line when in different circumstances he would have found himself a mainstay for several years. Likely to be on the fringes of the team in Florence, he is nonetheless capable of filling the shoes of any of his teammates in the black headband, with a fast-paced and technically skilful game particularly suited to snitch-on-pitch play. The final member of the 25, Ash Cooper, has a storied history with the squad, having captained in 2014 and acted as head coach from 2015 to 2016, before returning to the squad as a player last summer. A powerful chaser with strength in the tackle and redoubtable self-belief, the offensive side of his game perhaps falls short at the highest level and may keep him from playing a major role in the team’s overall strategy. However, Cooper can be expected to take centre stage in the situations where Oughtibridge looks to her chaser line to defend a winning position through resilience and physicality.
Despite the increased tournament squad introduced for this event, the changing of the guard must always mean some former stalwarts fading into the background, so it is fitting to pay some heed to the more conspicuous absences from the UK’s World Cup squad this year. Werewolves of London’s Luke Twist, long–time keeper for the team from 2014 to 2016 before making a highly effective switch to beater for the successful run to the European title in Oslo last year, retired from international play on the back of that victory. The UK’s beater depth, as mentioned, runs far such that Twist will not leave too conspicuous a void, but he nevertheless is an innovative, athletic, and physical player who for the first time in five years will not be an option for his country this summer. Another beater for whom the Oslo victory proved a swansong is Lucy Edlund, dependable and conservative in possession and renowned for the highly complementary partnership with Lucy Q which brought the pair such success for Nottingham Nightmares, Velociraptors QC, and the national team across four seasons. Tenaciously physical with reliability over a good range and exceptionally astute movement to complement the intense and chaotic style of her partner, Edlund’s shoes stand to be filled by the exciting Aziz in Florence.
The final player absent from the roster due to retirement is Jonathon Cookes. A titanic player with composure and physicality aplenty, Cookes was amongst the most important players for his country in Frankfurt two years ago and posed a challenge for which the formidable United States squad had no response in the teams’ semifinal match until an ankle injury forced the former Tornadoes QC chaser from the field. Stepping away from the sport in regrettable circumstances which are at least partly due to overly-officious refereeing and several questionable decisions made in light of Cookes’ stunning (but invariably well-intentioned and safe) tackles, the big chaser represents undoubtedly the biggest loss from the UK’s ranks for the tournament. The positives for the UK and their supporters is that last year’s European victory was also in Cookes’ absence, meaning the team is certainly not lacking for punch without him. Also, in newcomer Thompson, Team UK have this year a player who comes very close to Cookes in terms of physical power and raw athleticism.
Two more stalwarts of recent years who also will not be heading to Italy in June are Aaron Veale and Callum Lake. Southampton Quidditch Club captain Veale, unable to attend the event, would surely have been on the team sheet had he been available, compensating for his diminutive stature with ferocity, agility, and a clinical edge around the hoops. The coaching team will be hoping that with the team’s strength in depth, especially in stylistically similar players such as Thripp and Malpass, Veale’s absence will not be too sorely felt. Bangor Broken Broomsticks’s Lake, however, may well be very poignantly missed, kept out of the running with a knee injury. If deputy Purvis makes the step up to international level, then the EG-winning seeker’s absence may not be too visible, but it is a heavy burden to place on untested shoulders and Oughtibridge would surely prefer to have Lake to call upon.
A final two players who didn’t make the cut bear mentioning. Unlike the aforementioned, both Alice Walker and Sarah Ridley were available for selection and would have been likely to have made many peoples’ predicted teams, but were both overlooked by the coaching team. Ridley, a versatile and physical chaser comfortable playing on- and off-ball, has consistently impressed for Keele Squirrels since starting three seasons ago, defying her team’s decline. She is not a player in the same mould as many of the other chasers in the squad and brims with the tenacity and determination which underpins the Team UK mindset, but a series of niggling injuries are perhaps the reason Kempster and Piatek are seen as safer options. Walker, meanwhile, is a World Cup 2016 veteran, but has struggled to force her way into the national team since then, with O’Neill being preferred in recent years for her greater effective range and familiarity at club level with the other beaters in the squad. Still, the Radcliffe Chimeras’ beater is almost peerless in her defensive movement and is a specialist in snitch-on-pitch play; time will tell whether the absence of Walker’s composure and the depth of her intelligent play will be costly for the UK in Florence.
The 25 athletes who will turn out for the UK at World Cup in Florence this summer represent not only the best that the country has to offer now, but also show the signs of how strong the infrastructure of the national squad is in a way that no other quidditch-playing nation can really match. They look set for a very strong showing in summer, and with the healthy crop of recruits being consistently honed for their chance to step up, there is no sign of this abating. The squad spans generations of talent and sets a foundation for a decorated future.