When reviewing the 2016/17 SEMLA Premiership the column inches and the Facebook debates will no doubt focus on the top of the league. And perhaps rightly so; Spencer and Hampstead’s tussle for league and flags honours brought monumental excitement and titanic clashes for the ages. But we here at Pioneer Sports are a brand for the everyman, so will start our review from the bottom up, hoping to review the trials and tribulations of the year which has gone by and assess how accurate our preseason predictions were all those months ago.
The word “relegate” is traced by some scholars to “relgare”, a Latin word which meant “to banish” or “send to exile”. Unfortunately for East Grinstead, they will be the team automatically relegated from the league this year. Although the merry-go-round of perennial changes to league structures and who will, and who will not go down may yet save them. Few would have predicted, even the soothsayers here at Pioneer, that this day would come for the East Sussex side. The lofty heights of the league and flags semi-final from a year ago seem a distant memory. The losses of dynamic midfielders Tommos Rosser and Luke Mills (who instead travelled north for their Saturday Lacrosse) were exacerbated by the broken thumb of heroic captain and goalkeeper Andy Price. Adding to their woes was the inability to get a consistent string of players out each week, all of which has resulted in them propping up the league.
At the time of writing, although Hitchin occupy the penultimate place in the league, which may see a play off for safety if a lower league team would want to take their place, they have a game in hand over Bristol who are one place and one point above. If Hitchin are able to play their final league game (which is Cardiff away) then they will leapfrog Bristol and leave the Bombers in the perilous position. Seeing Bristol go down would be a great shame for the premiership. The men from the West are some of the most dedicated in the league; travelling 100s of miles every other weekend for away days and are known for their great hospitality on match days.
Just clear of the relegation zone are Cardiff and Cambridge. Cambridge have been an interesting addition to the league and a purple patch from their 6-6 Varsity draw on 25th February up till their final game against Hitchin saw them climb the table to safety. The run included key victories against EG and Reading as well as the defeat of Hitchin when they travelled with only 9 players. They had had some practice the week before as the light blues entertained Hillcroft with one shy of a full complement; but the commitment to ensure games still go ahead is laudable and the league will be better for them remaining.
One spot above Cambridge are Reading. Although they may have begun the year a little nervously, especially after an opening day loss to Cardiff, the Wildcats have shown their resiliency and finished a respectable 5th. A feather in their cap this year was securing perhaps the South’s most dominant face off man in Matt Birkett, who also marauded as a long pole at times. One rung higher on the ladder is the men of Walcountian Blues. Although the preseason talk was of the additions to the Blues roster, the hopes and dreams of October do not have seem to have come to fruition. Close, competitive and feisty games with the teams around and immediately above them in the league show that there is still a beating heart in the club, but it seems obvious that changes are necessary if the sleeping giant is to re-emerge as league or flags winners.
Just outside the top two are Hillcroft. Although unable to upset either Hampstead or Spencer this year, the men from Tooting and Mitcham did push Spencer all the way on two occasions with only one goal separating them in the league and flags semi. Hampstead and Spencer were the only two teams who Hillcroft dropped points to, further evidence that if they can find one or two big performances next year to beat their rivals from above they have a very real chance of winning the premiership or the flags. Offering odds on whether they can achieve the feat in the next 5 years would be a very interesting proposition…
Alas, we have almost reached the summit, but sitting just below the peak is Spencer, a rather unusual place for them. Although the men in claret restored pride when they defeated Hampstead at the Westway, their first fixture on 4th February 2017 will go down as the day the men in Black won the War. In the end it seems that the addition of professional players Matt Gibson and Tommy Palasek was the pivotal moment in the race for the SEMLA Premier, as it was the superior 6 goal margin of victory that day that pushed retaining the crown a few agonising millimetres away from Spencer’s grip. It wasn’t all plain sailing for Hampstead after beating Spencer though; bottom of the table EG defied league position and were drawing at three quarter time before the champions elect pulled away to win 9-6. They also had to navigate the potential banana skin of Reading; holding only a one goal lead going into the 4th before pulling away.
As the sun sets on the SEMLA season, the summer league beckons but that doesn’t stop us looking forward to next year. Welywn defeated Bath easily in their East/West play off and will re-join the premiership after two seasons in East 1. This is despite Hillcroft A and Spencer 2s both finishing above them in the league but being blocked by the rules on having two teams from the same club in the premiership, although that is an argument for another day. East Grinstead will look to bounce back, while Spencer look to regain their crown, and Hillcroft try and upset the ancient regime. Whatever happens, it should be another excellent year in the South.