By Gavin Hughes
With the first Northern division fixture of the 2018 Quidditch Premier League season at last consigned to the history books and predictions of parity between that division’s top three proven correct, our attention now turns to the Southern Division, which gets underway on Saturday, June 23 in London. This division perhaps seems more stratified at first glance than its Northern cousin, with a clear favourite in the London Monarchs and a straggler in the Welsh Dragons, but there’s still some potential wiggle room among the middle of the pack, and the first fixture is likely to have its fair share of tight matches.
There is no doubt about it: the London Monarchs are the team to beat this season. They’ve retained most of the key players of last season’s bronze-winning side, including Jackie Woodburn, captain Asia Piatek and the world-class beater pair of Jan Mikolajczak and Luke Twist. With many of the UK’s best regular-season beater pairs split among multiple teams, such as Bill Orridge and Lucy Q between East Midlands Archers and West Midlands Revolution, the retention of both Mikolajczak and Twist could prove key to the Monarchs’ snitch-on-pitch play. Their strong core is bolstered by a number of new transfers, bringing their total number of players on the Team UK World Cup roster this season to ten, alongside a sizeable portion of the expansion squad. While they have the depth and variety to adopt any of a handful of styles of play, from a direct driving game underpinned by Alex Macartney to the patient passing game of Seb Waters and Ben Malpass, it is reasonable to assume that we’ll see a lot of crossover with Team UK tactics. Barring the possibility of some incredible individual performances from the stars of the Southeast Knights roster, it’s hard to see any team taking a game from Monarchs during the divisional fixtures, or indeed at the championship in August.
Captain Asia Piatek at the QPL 2017 Championship|Photo Credit: Gio Forino
Silver medalists in the first season of the Quidditch Premier League, the Southeast Knights retain a solidly competitive roster for 2018, and must be considered podium contenders, even if the odds of victory lie in London’s favour. In selecting his squad, Joel Davis has drawn heavily from his own team, Southampton Quidditch Club, one of the ascendant “Big Four” UK clubs this season, and consequently we can expect the Knights’ style of play to act as a foil to the more Werewolves of London/Warwick QC-centric first line of the London Monarchs. The linchpin of this roster will surely be Aaron Veale, whose vision as a playmaker tends to make a good chaser line into a great one, and whose familiarity with many of the squad’s receivers will lend itself to a smooth passing game. With the beater pair of Anjit Aulakh and Kerry Aziz and the looming presence of seeker Ben Morton, teams will rightly fear SWIM matches with the Knights. The Monarchs will have to rely on dragging their closest rivals out of SWIM to guarantee a clean sweep of victories at the divisional fixtures, while the imposing Eastern Mermaids quaffle line may struggle to find any headway when faced with the sheer dominance the Knights are likely to exert in the beater game.
Chaser Aaron Veale representing Team UK|Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography
The Mermaids are a team reborn this season, with only eight players returning from their ignominious last–place finish in 2017. They look set to break their season-long losing streak in style in London this weekend, but nevertheless seem predestined to finish third in the division; an incredibly dominant quaffle line should see them comfortably past the Welsh Dragons and Southwest Broadside, but a distinct lack in the beater game could see them suffer against the Monarchs or Knights. Their best chance against these latter two teams will be to kill the tempo and take advantage of their wealth of talented long-range shooters such as Dominic Ayre, Jay Holmes, and Andrew Hull, circumventing the need to drive at two bludgers. If Monarchs and Knights can successfully press the Mermaids to force rushed attacks or turnovers, then these matches could become relatively lopsided. However, as the beater lineups on the Broadside and Dragons lack such an elite presence, these teams are unlikely to challenge the Eastern Mermaids for third place. At the championships the Mermaids could be considered a dark horse, but may face problems from the holy trinity of Lucy Q, Bill Orridge, and Leon Bürgers.
Dominic Ayre chasing for the Mermaids at the QPL 2017 Championship|Photo Credit: Claire Purslow Quidditch Photography
The Southwest Broadside had an underwhelming debut season, but unlike the Mermaids, they have not picked up as many truly elite players to bolster their squad this year, and thus are likely to be vaulted by their old rivals in the division standings and continue to languish at the bottom end of the championships. They draw their players almost exclusively from Bristol, Exeter, and Falmouth, the three strongest sides in the southwest, with the latter contributing the squad’s undisputable star player, Team UK’s Reuben Thompson. Last year, Thompson struggled to perform to his best, playing by necessity as a keeper, but reinforcements in the shape of Charlie Strickland, Karl Kane-Collery, and Hugh White should allow Thompson to play on the point, where he excels most, and make the Broadside’s quaffle defence tough to crack. However, the loss of Aaron Brett-Miller to injury leaves the Broadside without any truly top-tier beater talent, and though veterans such as Bex McLaughlin, Graeme Zaple and Jodie Mee will provide stability and competence, they Southwest will probably face the same problem as Mermaids do with Knights and Monarchs as a consequence. However, they lack the long shot threat and wealth of high-end tactical experience that Mermaids possess, making victory over the eastern side an uphill battle, though not inconceivable. This leaves them with no more than a trio of near-guaranteed victories against divisional whipping boys the Welsh Dragons from which to gather points in the run-up to the championships in August.
Reuben Thompson playing for Falmouth|Photo Credit: Claire Purslow Photography
There is probably only one prediction safer than calling the London Monarchs to win this division, and that prediction is that the Welsh Dragons will come last. The disparity between the Dragons and their nearest rivals is stark, and they are the only QPL team not to have any players involved with the Team UK training or expansion squads. Indeed, their only internationally–capped player is Ireland’s Kevin Carew, who is likely to play second string to Elliot Thomas and Ben Pooley. These latter two, however, could be a legitimately dangerous beater pair, but at the highly competitive level of the QPL will still be expected to struggle, particularly when working with a disorganised quaffle game inherited from the Swansea Swans and a potential overreliance on the talent of keepers Chazz McLeod and Calum Learoyd. It will be interesting to see how these two link up with capable Southampton receiver Chloe Smith. A star turn from her or from Thomas in the beater game could be enough to threaten the Broadside, but this is largely conditional upon Thomas removing his Falmouth Falcons teammate Reuben Thompson from the game: The Welsh quaffle line simply has no answer for a player of that calibre. Many would love to see a classic underdog success story from the Dragons, but unfortunately this season looks set to be a harsh debut for the Welsh side.
Dragons manager and keeper Chazz McLeod playing for Southwest Broadside in the QPL 2017 season|Photo Credit: Gio Forino