The last 100% win record in the Prem was snatched away as Hitchin humbled Hampstead 16-7 to add further confusion to the title mix.
The Bad Santas from Hertfordshire spoiled the party for the Men in Black with a dominant display that places them second in the league.
Hillcroft hold top slot over the Christmas break thanks to a 14-4 win over Bristol Bombers but it is difficult to see a clear pattern with multiple re-scheduling of games and cancellations.
Champions Spencer are in fourth but have only played six league games –two fewer than Hillcroft – while Hampstead languish in 7th, with three games in hand over the leaders.
A fixture squeeze in the second half of the season will place extra importance on availability and the health of players as the teams slug it out to the finish line.
Tom Leahy, Spencer’s co-captain summed it up after his side’s 22-3 win at Reading Wildcats.
“2016 is going to be a marathon,” he said. “We will be playing each game like a cup final as there are no easy games, proven especially by recent results elsewhere.”
The favourites from Earlsfield are carrying a defeat and Hampstead also now have a loss. Hillcroft, who look capable of going all the way this season – evidenced by their win at Spencer – have lost to Reading and were held to a draw by Cardiff.
East Grinstead has been the surprise package this season, producing exciting and controlled lacrosse from the depths of Sussex. Their lowly league position belies a gathering power, aided by their 2s pushing strongly for promotion from East 2.
They demolished an under-strength Purley 17-0 last weekend to anchor them firmly to bottom of the Prem but the former glory boys have been devastated by injuries and the promise is for a way more competitive 2016.
Jack Foster led the EG blitz with five goals with Luke Mills grabbing three and Chris White and Jon Treacy weighing in with two a piece.
“It was a great way to finish 2015 and we really controlled the game as a whole team, creating some really nicely worked goals and defensively when we are asked questions we didn't slack off either which was good to see,” said captain Andy Price.
“The second half of the season is going to be tough. We'd definitely like to be finishing in the top half of the table and, if we keep putting performances like last weekend in, we are confident we can do it.”
EG also have a Flags semi date against Blues on the horizon. “It is going to be a big game and, obviously, getting into the final would be a massive achievement for us, so we are all looking forward to that game,” added Price.
Welsh international and club captain Rhod Stanford was the stand-out performer in Hitchin’s win at Hampstead, controlling the face-off and scoring six goals as they posted back-to-back wins.
The Christmas break has probably come too soon for Hitchin who are just starting to roll after a tough start to the campaign with a number of 2nd teamers stepping up to the squad.
“It has been a steep learning curve, particularly as some regulars have been unavailable. But the Hampstead game was the first time this year that all of us played to the potential I see in training every week,” said Stanford. “I'm hoping that it will become a more regular thing as they gain experience in the Prem.
“Hampstead were missing a few of their big guns and relying on some less experienced guys. But they still had the ability to put out an experienced offensive unit (5 North American and 1 experienced Brit). You can only play against what's put in front of you and I'm chuffed with the performance of the guys.
“It’s a shame the Xmas break has arrived to be honest as we could have done with a few more games to keep the momentum going for some of the less experienced guys.”
Dennis Tobin, from Hampstead, was generous in defeat, praising Stanford’s face-off mastery and Hitchin’s fluid lacrosse.
Blues have been grinding out the results despite a lengthy injury list which has included key man Matt Birkett but his comeback last week was instrumental in their 11-7 win over Cardiff.
“His welcome return meant face-off was once again under control and it allowed us to take possession from the start,” said captain Stuart McGregor Dallas. “Cardiff are on a very good run of form and we knew we would have to dig deep, particularly as we only had ten men.”
Goals from top marksman Pete Ross and Ewan Willsmer helped Blues stay ahead despite a late rally from the visitors as the lack of numbers began to tell.
“Injuries have been our greatest enemy in the first of the season and that has hampered us against the top teams,” added McGregor Dallas. “Losing three games this first half of the season has not been an easy pill to swallow.
“But we hope to see all our first teamers returning to action in 2016 so we can try to chase down Hillcroft and give ourselves a strong chance to win the Senior Flags.”
Cardiff were disappointed with the loss but have returned to the senior ranks with style and purpose, winning most of the key games against clubs outside the Top Three. The highlight was the 9-9 draw with Hillcroft, which could have huge implications at both ends of the table by the end of the season.
But the Harlequins are aiming to be well clear of the basement scraps and their current 5th place standing is well deserved.
Spencer may have been out of the headlines but they gave a sharp view of the potential that has made them all-conquering in recent seasons with a 22-3 win at Reading. Their lack of game time showed in an evenly-contested first half but the Sparrows flexed their talons and drew clear with an ominous display, winning the final quarter 9-1.
“Reading played a very fast game and really came at us which kept us very busy on the ride and in defence,” said Tom Leahy. “We continue each week and through every game to get stronger with a very new squad this year.”
Cancellations and re-scheduled fixtures has rendered the Prem a slow burn this season but expect a firecracker start to New Year.
Leaders Hillcroft entertain Blues in a crunch fixture on January 9 – they had a narrow 7-5 win at Banstead at the start of the season and Spencer travel to Hitchin for a tough battle – Spencer beat them 12-1 at home on the opening day but a full strength Hitchin will push the champions all the way.
Bath are making the early running in SEMLA’s West 1 division with a 100% record with Southampton in 2nd slot. The newly-formed Plymouth City are yet to taste defeat in West 2 and lead Bath 2s going into the break.
Hillcroft’s emergence as a lax powerhouse is underscored by their A and B team topping East 1 and 2, respectively. Both have only lost one of eight games this term and both are in the semi-finals of their Flags.
Welwyn are pushing hard for a return to the Prem and are handily placed in 2nd slot in front of a resurgent Cambridge University who have a strong and talented squad that could push for promotion to the Prem, a status they have not had since 1991.
Another new club, Milton Keynes, has a 100% win record in East 3 and Rob Gooch and his team’s hard work is paying off as they build a healthy squad and hunt down instant promotion.
Jan 9 – Prem Fixtures
Bristol Bombers v Hampstead
Cardiff v Purley
East Grinstead v Reading
Hillcroft v Blues
Hitchin v Spencer