| The crème-de-la-crème
may have been missing but this was still a great opportunity to savour
the best of British beef in prime action. The new format for the British
Trials pitted the top eight fighters in each category in pools of
four, followed by straight semi-finals and finals. It was the format
we have all been waiting for and the absence of some of the top fighters
from these shores did little to detract from an inspiring competition.
There was no Craig Fallon, Kate Howey, Karina Bryant, Georgina Singleton
or Winston Gordon but that meant others stepped into the breach to
remind the country about their blossoming talents. None more so than
the remarkable Peter Cousins who won a tenth straight national title
(the last four in the senior ranks). Cousins progressed majestically
to an expected - 90kg final against Scotland’s Steven Vidler.
It was a brutal affair between two powerful men with Cousins securing
victory by Waza-ari from a drop Seoi-nage, to take that incredible
tenth title. Bobby Rich also impressed with two clinical, low Kata-guruma’s
scoring a Waza-ari each to beat Tom Davis into third place.
Peter’s brother Tom also made it through to the top two at -81kg
in a repeat of last year’s final against Euan Burton. This was
the most fiercely contested category with the likes of Luke Preston,
Peter Lomax and Simon Childs all vying for a place in the final four
and consequently on the squad. However, so keen and closely contested
were these fights that they often failed to spark into life as evenly-matched
opponents snuffed out each other’s threats. And the final itself
was a big disappointment as Cousins was forced to retire suffering
chronic cramping in his fingers and wrists. Full credit to his fighting
spirit as he vainly attempted to continue several times despite obvious
pain, and credit too to Burton who never flinched, never complained
and never lost focus despite the stopping and starting. He wanted
to fight and was ready to fight but Cousins simply could not continue.
Preston got the better of Lomax taking third place, but both made
it onto the squad.
This event proved to be an opportunity for two international quality
fighters to remind everyone that they are still around and would make
more than capable understudies should the need rise at the Olympics
in August. John Buchanan was a World Championship medallist in 2001
and returned to winning ways on home turf with a brilliant Uchi-mata
to beat Tom Smith in the -60kg final. He said it was a difficult contest
as the two train regularly together and know each others game so well….but
when it mattered, Buchanan produced the goods. In a category brimming
with youngsters, James Lutman defeated James Millar for third spot.
Simone Callender also claimed another British over 78kg title as she
displayed her international credentials. However, the London athlete
had to share the limelight with her vanquished final opponent, Kerri
Manfredi. Callender pinned Manfredi for Ippon but it is Manfredi’s
story that is truly remarkable. The 35-year-old was on the reserve
squad for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 but left the sport soon after
and had a daughter. Ten years later she came out of retirement and
started training again in September 2002. Just over a year on and
she was taking on the world class Callender in the final of the British
trials. And as much enjoyment as she gained, afterwards she told me
she was doing it for the benefit of others. She said: "What I
thought was if I can get back on the squad again I could pass on experience
to the younger ones and help them become future champions." Two
of those youngsters battled for Bronze with Sarah Adlington beating
There were two categories that stood out for being battles between
the recognised top two in the country. David Somerville faced James
Warren, as usual, at -66kg and Karen Roberts and Sarah Clarke resumed
their annual battle at -63kg. Warren and Somerville have being trading
positions as British number one for years but Somerville made the
Olympic team four years ago. However, it was Warren who put himself
in pole position by triumphing here. He was trailing by Yuko before
scoring Waza-ari with Kibisu-tsubame to move in front. Both fighters
were also picking up penalties as they nullified each other’s
threat and when Somerville was penalised to Keikoku, Warren was crowned
Champion. Colin Oates took third with Gareth Carder fourth.
Roberts and Clark have been sharing the victories on a virtually ‘one-for-you,
one-for-me’ basis over the last few years. And just to re-iterate
how closely matched they are, they decided to do battle for a total
of almost 20 minutes! They met in their pool and could not be separated
in regulation time. So it moved to Golden score before Clark eventually
settled the matter in the final minute with an Ippon throw. That counted
for nothing when they met again in the final, though. Roberts led
almost from start to finish but a late penalty evened matters at the
death. Once again there was Golden score, only this time the two were
inseparable. Incredibly it took the flags to break the deadlock and
Roberts won unanimously. Taking the other two places on the squad
were the young breed, Gemma Hutchins and Faith Pitman.
If there had been few if any surprise winners so far the winners of
the women’s -70kg and men’s over 100kg divisions could
certainly be described as unexpected. There was no Kate Howey or Mandy
Costello at -70kg but Sam Lowe was in the draw and a clear favourite.
However she came unstuck in the semi-final against Michelle Holt who
went on to score the quickest and most emphatic victory of all the
finals. Holt took just 10 seconds to despatch Nicola Dillon with Kochiki-taoishi.
Lowe did not appear for the Bronze medal contest and so third place
went to Sian Fairbrother.
On a day of excellent judo, glory and passion, the happiest person
at the end of the event had to be Andy Edes. Danny Sargent had dominated
the men’s heavyweight division for the last four years but there
was to be a new face on the top tier of the rostrum – and it
was Edes’s. Sargent was surprisingly dumped for Ippon in a bad-tempered
semi-final against 17 year old Joe Delahay. That put the youngster
in the final against Edes whom he had already lost to in the pools.
Edes had been impressive all day in his transference from Nage-waza
to Ne-waza and had pinned most of his opponents. It was to be the
same story in the final as he turned Delahay over and held him to
claim victory with a crushing Kesa-gatame. Sargent took third place
from Mark Montgomery. After the competition a beaming Edes said: "I
am over the moon, this is one of the best days of my life and I have
trained so hard for this. There are two things I can achieve in judo
– National Champion and Commonwealth Champion – and now
I have done one of those."
One of the most intriguing divisions was the men’s -73kg where
a rejuvenated Eric Bonti came up against the current number one incumbent
Matthew Purssey. The two met in the pools and Purssey narrowly edged
a thrilling battle to win the group. But both earned convincing semi-final
victories to set up a dream final. They made a contrasting sight as
they lined up waiting to fight looking equally focused. Purssey, tall
and rangy with his David Beckhamesque hair-style and Bonti with his
compact frame, hunched shoulders and icy stare. But the final itself
did not live up to its billing. In the first exchange Purssey slumped
to the mat in a failed attack but hestitated a moment, expecting to
hear matte. The call did not come and as he tried to stand Bonti pounced
on his back to apply hadaka-jime. Purssey initially held out despite
the strangle inching on. But just as the referee looked set to call
a halt, Purssey crucially raised his hand in anticipation of submitting.
The referee waited, Bonti squeezed, and Purssey succumbed. It was
the 30-year-old (sorry!) Bonti’s fifth national title. Ian Francis,
who competed recently in the European Teams event in London, took
third place from Ian Johns in a close encounter.
Vicki Dunn continued her return to the top with a second straight
-52kg title. Dunn stepped up from -48kg last year on her return
from a long injury-induced absence. She faced Liz Walsh in the final
and made it the second quickest Ippon of the day. Dunn was dominant
in Ne-waza and quickly turned Walsh over into Sangaku-gatame. With
increasing pressure applied to her neck and trapped in a vice-like
grip, Walsh soon tapped out after just 42 seconds of the final.
The experienced Julie Baker claimed third spot with victory against
Another returning athlete who has been dogged by injury problems was
Michelle Rogers at -78kg. In her absence Rachel Wilding had stepped
up to the weight from -70kg and staked her claim for the number one
position, particularly after taking second place at the British Open
in April. Another contender was Jo Melen who narrowly lost to Rogers
in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Rogers beat them both. Melen was beaten
by Ippon in the semi-final and then a tremendous final was settled
by Yuko in Rogers’ favour. There was more disappointment for
Melen when she was thrown for Ippon in the third place contest by
Sian Wilson with Kochiki-taioshi. At the 2002 World Junior Championships
I remarked that Wilson looked disinterested however she was anything
but in this championships, looking focussed and determined.
The women’s -48kg final was another match contested by the
genuine top two in the category. The experienced Fiona Robertson,
from Scotland, came up against the young pretender Clare Lynch.
Both had a point to prove, as the British selectors chose not to
send an -48kg fighter to the World Championships in Japan earlier
in the year. Robertson came out the more aggressive and quickly
gained favour with the referee. Lynch was struggling and picked
up three penalties and when Robertson scored Yuko with Kouchi-gari,
the contest slipped beyond Lynch’s reach. As is customary,
Robertson’s sister Donna also made the podium, taking third
place from Rebecca Kay.
Sophie Cox, who enjoyed a brilliant 2003, was missing from the
women’s -57kg category so her replacement at September’s
Worlds stepped into her place. Nathalie Barry edged out Jenny Brien
in the final by Chui. Sophie Johnstone continued her rapid rise
through the weight categories to take third place from Louise Rennicks.
Just over 12 months earlier, Johnstone was fighting at -48kg, so
to win a medal two weights higher within such a short space of time
shows impressive progress.
The last category to be decided was the men’s -100kg division
which produced a shock. Sam Delahay had been the king at this weight
for the last two years but was eliminated after suffering a shoulder
injury in his semi-final. That left Brett Embley to battle it out
in the final against Steve Edwards. It was a tense unspectacular
affair and settled on a single hard earned penalty with Embley edging
out Edwards. Graeme Strachan took Bronze, as Delahay could not fight
It was the end of a marvellous tournament which benefitted from
the excitement generated by the new format of semi-finals and finals.
And once again it was an opportunity for the best of Britain to
demonstrate the fruits of their hard work and dedication to their
sport. But with the squad settled for the next 12 months, thoughts
turned immediately to the forthcoming European ‘A’ tournaments
season and Olympic qualification. For several fighters, winning
the British Trials is not just about being champion of their country
but an opportunity to upset the old guard and try to muscle in on
a place in the British team. The next eight months promise to be
full of drama and passion, glory and heartache - but as far as the
Olympics go, for everyone fighting at the trials, the hard work
has only just begun .