As in the men’s league, the women have also reached the halfway point of the domestic league campaign. Reading and Canterbury are at the top, still neck and neck on points, separated only by goal difference but have opened up a gap of five points from the chasing pack. Behind them the difference between third and seventh spans just five points. With just two games to go until Christmas it is all to play for.
The big game of the weekend pits the two top sides against each other as Steve Bayer’s Reading make the trip to Polo Farm to square off against Canterbury. Reading beat Bowdon Hightown 2-0 last week to continue their excellent run. However, they go into this clash missing a number of players as Helen Richardson-Walsh, Kate Richardson-Walsh, Alex Danson, Susie Gilbert, Susannah Townsend and Sam Quek have all flown out to Argentina on international duty. Coach Steve Bayer was calm about his side’s prospects despite the loss of those players:
“There’s a long way to go so we’re trying to take the games as they come. We have a big squad so hopefully we’re equipped to deal with losing players to international games. It’s great to be competing with a side like Canterbury and it’s making the league very exciting this year, which is great for the overall standard of the league.”
Canterbury are matching their rivals stride for stride, producing an excellent win over Clifton last weekend. Player-Coach Jen Wilson told The Top of the D:
“We knew Clifton would be tough. You know that even if you get a lead you are never comfortable against them, they are always still fighting for the points. We started very well and put them under pressure but then they came back into it and scored a goal from a quick free-hit that put us behind at the break. We came out second half much stronger and threw a lot more at them in attack. We led 3-1 but they scored late on setting up a tense finale. Overall we were very pleased to be able to take the win.”
Although her side defeated Reading on the opening day, and although the visitors won’t be at full strength, Wilson is well aware of how dangerous the reigning champions are:
“Reading are missing a few players but we’d be foolish to take them lightly. It can be an advantage to play against them when they are missing some players but it can also be a disadvantage. They have plenty of great players still available and those who don’t get a chance every week will be hungry to prove themselves, it can be very dangerous.” She added: “The first game of the season where we beat them was a long time ago. It shows we are capable of competing with them but we aren’t going into this game with any less respect for them than they deserve. They are still a quality team and we still have a very tough game ahead.”
Another important clash takes place between Clifton who are now in fifth and Surbiton who moved up to third. Brett Garrard’s side produced a three goal blitz in the opening ten minutes and ended up winning 6-2 away at Beeston. Surbiton, like Reading will be without players as three of their squad (Georgie Twigg, Hollie Webb and Giselle Ansley) have also departed for Argentina. Clifton, despite their strong start to the season have fallen away in recent weeks and have won only once in their last five games. Steve Rixon’s side will be keen to arrest their slide with a win against a fellow play-off contender.
Sutton Coldfield suffered a setback in their relegation battle last week as they went down 2-1 to University of Birmingham in a genuine relegation six-pointer. The Mighty Pinks are still stuck on three points, in second bottom but are now adrift of Birmingham by six. They need a big result against Beeston, who are themselves looking to bounce back from a defeat last week. Of course the Bees will be aiming to repeat their opening day hiding of Sutton, a game that finished 7-0.
Olton, the only team below Sutton continued their search for their first point of the season but were once again put to the sword, this time by Leicester who ran in eight goals to Olton’s one, including a hat-trick for Katie Long. This week they face up to Bowdon Hightown. Hightown are now back in sixth but are still firmly in the mix for the end of season play-offs despite their 2-0 defeat to Reading last time out. Player-Coach Tina Cullen told TTOTD:
“Obviously we are disappointed to have lost to Reading but the team were quite pleased with the performance against a strong side. On the whole we are reasonably pleased with the first half of the season but realise we have plenty to do to make the play-offs.”
That just leaves the clash between University of Birmingham and Leicester. As mentioned above, The Pukkas ran riot against a hapless Olton last week and have now moved up to fourth, just two points behind third placed Surbiton. It may have taken them a while to get going but Leicester are building some good momentum. This week they will have to fend off Phil Gooderham’s University of Birmingham. Birmingham gained an important win over Sutton last time out to give themselves some breathing space above the relegation places. Gooderham gave some insight on how his team overcame the stubborn resistance of their local rivals:
“We had a good second half and I think they tired a bit towards the end which helped us. We have a good squad and sometimes, like in these games, the quality and numbers we had on the bench is a great advantage to us. We managed our squad well and that helped us get the win. As good as these points are there is still a lot of hockey left this season so we have to keep improving.”
Despite Leicester’s good form, Gooderham was very clear about his side’s ambitions this weekend:
“We always go for the three points. I’m not a negative coach so my teams are always looking to score goals. That’s how I was brought up to play and I hope that’s how people see my teams. A point would be a good result but we are definitely going there looking for three. If we do the right things and play to our strengths we have a good chance.”
With this being the penultimate round of games before the Christmas break every side knows the importance of every point. The league continues to be very close at the top and this weekend promises to be another superb instalment of a fine season. As ever, check the results on the England Hockey website.