By Danny Buckland
Welwyn bounced back to the SEMLA Premiership in style with a satisfying win to calm any big stage nerves after their two years in the Championship wilderness.
The Herts outfit, who slid from their mighty title-winning exploits of 2010, looked instantly back at home as they triumphed 10-8 at Cambridge University.
The tight, competitive encounter was lit up by four goals from the returning Dave Groves and a stand-out performance from Ben Stowe in goal on his Prem debut after a close season transfer from Buckhurst Hill.
The game was close throughout with the Light Blue students edging a 5-4 lead at half-time. The teams were 7-7 at the end of Q3 only for Welwyn to pull clear to record a two-goal victory.
Skipper Alex Harper was delighted with the result but believes his team has more to give and can grow through the season.
“We were very happy with the result but felt we didn’t play anywhere near our full potential,” he said.
“It was great to get the win but we certainly have a lot more to give to reach our best.
Bristol Bombers also got off to a flier with a win over Reading Wildcats who – like Hampstead heading for Cardiff – experienced tough travel West with the M4 closed at one point.
Their 7-5 win was a testimony to hard pre-season graft to knit a fresh line-
Guy Oldring pointed to a solid team performance as the key to the narrrow victory but Scotland U19 Cameron Stewart Syme starred at face-off and Pete Wilson quarter-backed an effective attack with student Freddie Atkins making a strong showing.
Bristol went 7-3 up and were able to keep ahead with Bob Chapman staging a characteristic wall-like performance in goal as the Wildcats fought back.
Oldring commented: “The team have worked really hard over pre-season and wanted to start the season well and we did.
“There wasn’t really a stand out player as everyone played as a team and supported each other. The biggest thing was the patience we showed in offense holding possession for long periods and making good decisions.
“Pete Wilson was very clinical in attack and controlled it and the game well. Reading did put a few past us at the end but the game was already won really.”
Bristol and Welwyn face each other on Saturday in what promises to be an absorbing match-up.
The champions fared well in Cardiff after the road delays reduced their match to the minimum 60-minutes, squeezed in before the Harlequins’ pitch booking expired.
Hampstead, featuring ten new players including five new lax scholars in a 17-man roster, were too strong for Cardiff and jumped to a 9-0 lead at the end of Q1 and 14-0 at Half Time.
Cardiff steadied the ship and found some form as the game progressed but the Men in Black’s blitz had tied the result up early doors and played with style throughout.
Will Pickett lead the offensive unit with trademark fizz and Mike Carbone, ex Boston University, claimed ten goals while fellow US scholar Cam Joyce grabbed five as Hampstead ran out 22-1 winners.
“Cardiff’s face-off player, in his first year, did well and they have a good team spirit, play well as a team and were great hosts after the game,” said Dennis Tobin.
“They should hold their own in the tight bottom half of the League if they can muster a good squad each weekend. I have a lot of respect for the Harlequins and their dedication as every other weekend they have the longest journeys to get to their games: they love to play and they play for the love of the game.”
Hampstead’s player merry-go-round does not seem to have weakened them with their D-unit looking particularly powerful this season but availability, as always, will be the key to their season’s prospects.
Hampstead entertain Cambridge this Saturday at the Westway at their new face-off time of 2.30pm which will be in place for all home games.
Hillcroft stay top and unbeaten after a surprisingly comfortable 14-1 win over a Blues team that competed well but struggled to find cohesion.
Thom Gilbrook and Eoin Dunne both bagged four goals while last week’s six-goal hotshot Ben Stringer had to settle for a hat-trick.
“It was a complete team performance and we dominated in all aspects of the game,” said captain Tom Loake.
“Blues have traditionally been a tough game for us and it was great to see Hillcroft gel so early in the year. The attack was efficient and patient, possessing the ball for long periods of time.”
The defensive performance was equally potent with Andy Hopkins forcing turnovers and John Goodwin disrupting plays and picking off passes while Toby Cleaver-Ross was rock solid against his former team-mates, saving 6 of 7 shots.
Blues captain James Kidd praised his team’s defensive effort against the Hillcroft onslaught with the poles and short stick D sticking to their task and Cam Tobin excelling in goal.
“Our defence was solid but when you play 90% of the game defending, you’re going to concede,” he said.
“Hillcroft have clearly worked on their sets and are even more organised than in previous years. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t maintain any kind of possession. They played a high pressure defence which to be honest we weren’t ready for and that forced us into silly mistakes.
“It was a wake up call but its motivated us to improve rapidly.”
Blues welcome back Dave Baldwin at face-off for this week’s visit of Cardiff, the first of their long treks this season.
The ‘Big Three’s’ impressive opening day start was completed by Spencer’s 33-2 romp over a depleted Hitchin.
The stand-out performances across a glittering display came from home grown talent with Will Walker firing eight goals with six assists and Josh Dodd claiming an 82% face-off success.
The legendary Rick Bone showed no sign of being glory-weary as he saved above 75% and Rob Holmes cashed in with five goals with eight different scorers tallying in an impressive performance.
“We had a great pre-season and we’re playing well at the moment,” said co-captain Tom Roche.
Loake and Roache will take their stardust pre and early season form into the first big collision of the season when Hillcroft and Spencer lock horns at Earlsfield this Saturday.
Loake comments: “As dominant and pleasing as the Blues’ performance was, our focus has turned firmly to Spencer this coming weekend.
“This is a big clash for such an early point in the season and promises to be a really high standard.
“Both teams have looked strong in pre-season – the only losses each team has had at either Bath 8s or Spencer Day is to each other – and both recorded strong opening results to start the season.”
Bristol 7 – 5 Reading
Cambridge 8 – 10 Welwyn
Cardiff 1 – 22 Hampstead
Hillcroft 14 – 1 Blues
Hitchin 2 – 33 Spencer
Hampstead v Cambridge (2:30pm)
Reading v Hitchin
Spencer v Hillcroft
Blues v Cardiff (12:00pm)
Welwyn v Bristol Bombers