Top four talk Finals Weekend

140308 reading - Susie Gilbert - & clifton 09

With the top four from the Investec Women’s Premier League now decided, attention turns to the Finals weekend at Reading Hockey Club on the 12-13 April.

Canterbury will face Clifton in the first semi-final after Steve Rixon’s team held off a strong challenge from Bowdon Hightown and Leicester to secure the final play-off place, while second-placed Reading will take on Surbiton. With the plethora of internationals on show it promises to be an action packed weekend of top class hockey.

Canterbury, who missed out on top spot last season with a loss on the final day got the job done this time out to qualify for Europe for the first time since 2007. The Polo Farm side have lost just twice in the league and have beaten play-off rivals Reading and Clifton (twice) and Surbiton (once). Jen Wilson’s team have built their success on a resolute defence conceding just 14 goals and keeping ten clean sheets with Mel Clewlow and Captain Grace Balsdon in particular outstanding for the Kent side.

“We’ve set ourselves high standards all season and we intend to maintain those.” said Player-Coach Wilson. “Clifton are a very tough side, well organised and hard to beat so it won’t be easy but we are going in with confidence and will hopefully get the result we need. We’re very pleased to be in the semi-finals. The opportunity to play on that stage against those players is fantastic and we are looking forward to it very much.”

Despite losing three of their four top scorers from the previous season, Canterbury have scored the third most goals in the league. Scotland star Nikki Kidd has led the way with 12 goals, whilst Kim Young and Wilson have chipped in with ten between them. Canterbury have proved they are a force to be reckoned with and so will take some stopping in the semi-finals.

Reading, who finished just a point behind the leaders return as defending champions and boast a squad packed with international stars. After their opening day defeat to Canterbury they went on an eight game unbeaten run, including wins over Surbiton, Leicester and Bowdon. That run came to a halt when they lost against Canterbury again but despite those setbacks, Steve Bayer’s side finished four points clear of third placed Surbiton. Despite their status as the current holders of the trophy, their captain, Emma Thomas is keen to stress that history counts for little:

“The past is the past and just because you won a trophy before it doesn’t mean anything. We need to prove ourselves all over again.” she said. “We have a quality group of players and we want to do ourselves justice so we are focused on the challenge ahead and we’re determined to show people what we can do.”

Reading come into the game with the most potent attack in the league, scoring 58 times in 18 games. Alex Danson has bagged 15 of those goals, making her the league’s top scorer but it has not all been about Danson. The Great Britain star has been ably supported by Susie Gilbert, Becky Halle, Leah Wilkinson and Jess Brooker who have supplied 23 goals between them. As well as contributing a useful goal tally, Wilkinson has been a defensive colossus and one of the league’s top performers helping to ensure Reading have conceded just 16 goals over the course of the season.

“We’re trying to keep improving every game so we can peak at the right time. We’re a big game team so hitting form at this stage is our aim and one of the most important factors for us.” said Thomas ahead of their clash with Surbiton. They may have had to settle for second place in the league but as they have proved time and time again, when the big occasion arrives Reading are rarely found wanting.

Brett Garrard’s Surbiton will face Reading by virtue of their third place finish in the league. They lost out to their semi-final opponents in the first half of the season but gained their revenge in early February as Sarah Page’s strike was enough to give them the three points. Having made it to the semi-finals last season, they come into this year’s competition with renewed confidence:

“The balance of our squad is better this year. We’ve got a good mix of international players and experienced club players. Players like Chloe Strong and Abi Walker add some huge value to us and the younger players give us a lot to be excited about. We’re better prepared for semi-finals having been there before so we’ll see what we can do.” said Surbiton coach Brett Garrard.

With nine wins and a draw in their last 12 games, including victories over all three of the other play-off challengers Surbiton come into the competition in fine form. Captain Chloe Strong, like her rivals, is all too aware of the importance of momentum:

“We’re peaking at the right time of the season; it’s looking good for us going into semi-finals. Last year stands us in good stead as the girls have another year’s experience under their belts and that’s what we needed. Getting to the semi-finals was our aim and with the run of form we’ve had we want to take that on a stage and get into Europe.”

Clifton are back in the semi-finals after a short absence, last qualifying in 2012. Steve Rixon’s side had to wait until the penultimate week to book their place in the top four but have richly deserved it after making themselves one of the toughest sides to beat in the division. They have taken points from both Reading and Surbiton this season, although they have suffered two defeats to their semi-final opponents Canterbury. Rixon has plenty of respect for the Kent side, saying “Canterbury will be a massive challenge. It’s a big stage and they’re a terrific side. You don’t win the league by accident, after all. We’ve not taken points off them this season but they’ve been close games. If we can take our chances on the day then who knows what could happen?”

Clifton have drawn a lot of praise for their approach this season, choosing to take games to their opponents, adopting the mantra that attack is the best form of defence. Captain Aileen Davis is adamant that will be no different for the big occasion:

“We go there with nothing to lose. This is one of the strongest groups since I’ve been here and so we’ll go out and go after the games like we always do. We’re at our best when we attack teams, we’re not a side who sits back and defends so we’re not going to change that because it’s the semi-finals.”

Whilst they may go in as underdogs, a tag Clifton are used to, Canterbury, Reading and Surbiton will know full well they cannot underestimate Rixon’s team who have every chance of getting to the final.

With just a point separating the top two and with both Surbiton and Clifton producing good results when it matters, it really is anybody’s to win. As is always the case, the league form goes out of the window and it is all about who rises to the occasion and produces their best in the semi-finals.  

If you want to see all of these games live, you'll need tickets to the Investec Women's Hockey League Finals weekend. Advance tickets are still available, saving you up to 33% compared to on the door - visit our tickets page to book now.