Edition No. 37. Winter, 2003. Today is
 

National Grand Finals
December 13, 2003

Stoke-on-Trent
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 Abbie Cunningham.

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 Sam Smithson.

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 on.

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 .

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MEN

-60kg

John Buchanan

-66kg
James Warren

-73kg
Eric Bonti

-81kg
Euan Burton

-90kg
Peter Cousins

-100kg
Brett Embley

+100kg
Andrew Ede

WOMEN

-48kg

Fiona Robertson

-52kg
Vicki Dunn

-57kg
Natalie Barry

-63kg
Karen Roberts

-70kg
Michelle Holt

-78kg
Michelle Rogers

+78kg
Simone Callender
 
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