The two teams who finished third in the respective men’s Premier Division and women’s Investec League – Surbiton and East Grinstead – are both teams capable of creating an upset at League Finals Weekend. In terms of playing experience, both these sides contain fewer Olympian than their three rivals, but what they lack in Olympic experience, they more than make up for in team work, and the ability to surprise their rivals.
For Surbiton men, the season got off to a poor start with an opening day 2-3 loss to Holcombe and a draw against Hampstead and Westminster. From then on, however, the team has sailed through the season unbeaten, although they do have eight draws to their name.
With the leagues’s top goal scorer, Alan Forsyth, looking to extend his scoring figures beyond the 20 league goals he has amassed so far, and Australian Luke Noblett hoping to continue to make an impact upon the side, Surbiton will provide a real challenge for their first opponents, Holcombe. The south London side have the services of six Welsh and Scottish players who recently returned from HWL R2 duty – an experience that will have sharpened their game before the challenge ahead.
In his earlier assessment of the teams and their chances, Hampstead and Westminster coach Kwan Browne said that Surbiton are a young side who play a very route one form of the game, something that could well upset the Holcombe players.
For East Grinstead, the past three seasons have been an upward trajectory. They joined the top table in the 2014-15 season, finished mid-table in 2015-16 and now have secured a top four finish in their third season. The West Sussex side began the season in stunning fashion as they remained unbeaten in the Investec League until February, but then three consecutive losses – to Surbiton, University of Birmingham and Holcombe – saw them drop down the league and into a scramble for the top four places with Birmingham and Clifton. They secured their play-off spot on the final day of the league when they beat Bowdon Hightown.
EG will be pleased to call Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre their home for the Finals weekend. Two years ago they secured promotion at the stadium and, with their home form less than exemplary – they have lost three of their nine home games – a return to the home of hockey will be very welcome.
Lucy Bairner and Pippa Lock have been on form for EG this year, both players have been regularly popping up on the scoresheet and will hope to find a way past Holcombe in their match on Saturday 22 April. At the other end of the pitch, two Olympians will also be looking to extend a season that has glittered. Defender Laura Unsworth and ‘keeper Kirsty Mackay, who was reserve goalie in Rio, have been the bedrock of the East Grinstead defence and their experience will count heavily in the clash at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.
Kirsty herself plays down the role she and Laura Unsworth play in the team, saying ’I think we are less important in some ways because the team have had to manage without us in some games this year, as we both had some time out post Rio. Obviously, when we are there I am sure the girls do appreciate the experience we bring, and I can only hope that we do instil confidence to the team.
‘My role at EG is to exude confidence to the team, not just because I was part of the GB squad, but because I am the goalkeeper and being confident and calm under pressure is key in that position.’
In preparation for the coming competition, the women’s team have played friendlies against the men’s team – something that has led the team to really step up a notch. But, says Kirsty, that has been the story of the past two seasons. Since gaining promotion to the league, it has been a case of fast learning. The ‘keeper says that larger squad (18-20 players) has been tough to adapt to, but ultimately this has led to a very competitive push for places, which bodes well for the weekend ahead.
‘When joining EG, it was my goal to help get them to Europe, we achieved that in the indoor competition and now we have a shot outdoors. It is such an achievement to make the top four in only our second year in the league and therefore we have already exceeded expectations.
‘I hope that we are ready. Through our performance in Lithuania in February [at the Indoor Club Championships] we can take great confidence that we can compete at a European level. We just have to focus on the first game against Holcombe. They obviously have far more experienced players than us and a lot of great internationals but anything can happen on the day. I'm really looking forward to the challenge.’
Cheer on East Grinstead and Surbiton this weekend at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre at the League Finals - tickets on sale here!