Festival of Football
There was plenty of intrigue heading into the revamped structure of finals day. In previous seasons, we’ve seen only 4 teams in attendance in what was a bit of an unfulfilling finale. This season we saw eight premier division and eight division one sides descend upon Sheffield to battle it out for their respective titles.
What took place was a fitting climax to an awesome season of BAFA action. The 16 teams in attendance gave us thrills, spills and a lot to chew on in the offseason! Before we delve into the game, we just wanted to make sure we prefaced our review with how enjoyable this day of football was!
Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ll know that both the London Smoke and Baker Street Buttonhookers won their championships, with the Smoke clinching the first ever first division crown, while the Buttonhookers become the first repeat champion since the Kirkcaldy Bulls.
The Smoke were pushed by Carnegie Flag Football in the final, needing to resort to one of Henry Williams’ trademark mazy runs to kill enough clock to seal the win. The Buttonhookers had a more comfortable time of the final against the Glasgow Hornets, but it was an interesting game for the majority of the contest.
Where does this leave each team? Well the Smoke will be entering the Premier Division with a spring in their step. They’re already plenty familiar with the Buttonhookers and Rebels, as well as the others sides in and around London. We have them contesting for a championship spot in their first season, but the top two in the SEC Premier Division flexed their muscles in the final action of the season to show the rest of the UK that they’re, at times, on another level from the rest of the field.
The Buttonhookers’ back-to-back title wins could signal the start of a dynasty! It all could have gone very different against the Oilcats and Rebels, who both had leads against the Baker Street side. But when push came to shove, the Buttonhookers had far too much for the Hornets in the final, and showed the class they have. Will they aim to topple the Bulls’ consecutive titles streak?
We joked about some sides just being happy to be at Britbowl this season, particularly in the Premier Division bracket. Some sides really struggled during the regular season when the level went up a notch, but there was a lot of parity in Sheffield, as every Premier Division clash was hotly contested.
Starting in the first round, credit needs to go to the Northants Titans Blue, who probably thought they were walking into a buzzsaw when they drew the Glasgow Hornets in the first round. Just before half-time, you’d have been forgiven for thinking so. Two early scores, coupled with two Nicky Farrell interceptions and a safety from Kas Arshad, had the Hornets sitting comfortably, however a pair of scores set up by long Jordan Melay receptions got the Titans Blue back into the game. The Hornets began to capitulate, with two costly interceptions giving the Titans the ball on the 5 yard line, needing only one score to tie the game. The Hornets defence closed the door on the comeback attempt, and saw the game out. In the placement games, a heavy loss to the Hurricanes, followed by a loss to the OTHER Titans resigned the Northants side to 8th place, but they can be proud of their efforts.
The next lowest seed, the Aberdeen Oilcats, were unfortunate to lose Gary Elliott early in their game against the Buttonhookers. A shoulder/collbarbone injury meant the Oilcats would try to protect their slender lead without their top defender, but they were unable to stop the Buttonhookers from advancing. A comfortable win over the Titans in the placement bracket was followed with a shellacking to the Hurricanes, as the Oilcats finished 6th overall.
The Manchester Titans vs London Rebels game had us excited, as neither side had much history against the other in recent years. The Rebels were at near full strength, and had Calvin Tarlton at the height of his powers, as 49 points was enough to help his side advance. The Manchester Titans put up plenty of fight though, as Rich McEwen and Alan Mead connected for several scores to keep things interesting. The Titans certainly showed they belonged with their excellent showing as they finished 7th on the day.
The final first round game was the Cardiff Hurricanes vs Sheffield Giants. Honestly, if a boatrace was on the cards, we would have put our money on the Hurricanes, whereas a defensive battle would favour the Giants. Well, we were proven wrong as the Giants came out all-guns-blazing, putting up 46 points on the South’s #2 seed. The Hurricanes could only muster 28 points of their own as they crashed out at the first hurdle. Their placement games went much better, as they clinched 5th place after beating the Titans Blue and the Oilcats.
The Giants earned themselves a rematch against the Glasgow Hornets, who they fell to earlier in the season. The Hornets started well with an early score and stop, as they seized the advantage. A pick-six to Mantas Ceckauskas late in the half gave the Giants back momentum, as both sides traded scores either side of half time. The Hornets took a 7 point lead late in the game, but were pegged back by the Giants with under 2 minutes remaining. Excitingly, the Giants went for it all on a 2 XP attempt. Their effort was picked off by Julian Holburn-White, who wouldn’t be denied as he ripped the ball from his own teammate’s hands! Some clock malfunctions meant the Hornets needed to dig deep for another play to seal the deal, and a deep Alan Young pass to Nicky Farrell for a first down sealed the Hornets’ place in the final.
In the other semi-final, the Rebels and Buttonhookers met for the third time this season, as this bracket of games could very much be called the Rematch Round (even the placement games, Cardiff vs Titans Blue and Aberdeen vs Titans were played earlier this year). The Rebels started fast, catching the Buttonhookers cold. With the lead in the second half, the Rebels began to take their foot off the gas, letting the Buttonhookers get back into the contest. The game then descended into chaos, sparked by an insane Calvin Tarlton rushing TD after a deflected pass landed in his hands! The Buttonhookers drove right down inside the 5 yard line with under 2 minutes to go and started to bleed some clock. When it was time to take a pop at the endzone, Vince Machi’s pass was deflected into the air and somehow landed in the hands of Steve Mongey.
The Buttonhookers were now up by 6 after a failed XP attempt. The Rebels had too much time though, and got a first down with the clock under 10 seconds. A deep heavy into the backcorner was somehow batted away by Josh Nicholson. One final play was all that was left and it fell incomplete! However, a flag against the Buttonhookers blitzer Ray Taylor for illegal contact gave the Rebels one final throw with no time remaining. From 12 or so yards out, Calvin aimed for the front pylon of the endzone, but Ryan Loftus batted the ball away to book the Buttonhookers’ final spot against the Hornets.
The Rebels and Giants went onto have a highly entertaining third place playoff. The Giants were a score down with no time left, however Kenny Bello picked off a pass in his own half and returned it for a score to give the Rebels 3rd place, while the Giants would need to settle for 4th.
The final was close for much of the game. The Hornets, ailing on defence, set themselves up to prevent being beaten deep, and relied on their strong tackling. The gameplan failed as the Buttonhookers were able to find the endzone multiple times on 4th down, as they played a mistake free game. The Hookers wouldn’t be stopped throughout the whole game, but their defence had some difficulty putting the game to bed.
Julian Holburn-White delighted onlookers with an awesome performance, but it was Richie Moore’s first half scamper through the Buttonhookers defence that had the Hornets believing. In the second half, fatigue and injuries caught up with the Northern side, as they lost Nicky Farrell, Tom Jeffereys and Craig Murray to injuries. The former two would return in a limited capacity, but the damage had been done to their title chances. An excellent Josh Nicholson interception of Alan Young gave the Buttonhookers the slim advantage, while a second interception which bounced off the hands of a Hornets receiver’s hands killed all hopes of a comeback.
Final for the Ages
The first ever Division One title was won by the London Smoke, but how did they get there? An opening round game against the Grangemouth Colts, who were down much of their squad, gave the Smoke a chance to rest several starters. They won 26-0, before despatching the Northants Titans White 42-7.Carnegie cemented their place in the final after overcoming the Bedford Blackhawks 34-20 in the opening round, after some early-game jitters. The semi-finals had the battle of the undefeated sides, as Carnegie took on the Trojans. There was no hope for the Trojans as they fell 56-14. A star was born in this game, as Callum Nicol dominated the athletic Trojans with his size and safe hands. Michelle Holburn-White, the wife of the Hornets’ star receiver Julian, notched herself a TD in this game, becoming one of the (if not, the) first woman to score in the BAFA mixed division playoffs!
The final game looked to be over early, as the Smoke took a commanding lead after a pick-six by MVP Johnnie Kerr. However you can never count a Neil Arnold side out, as he rallied his team to get within a score of taking the lead. Callum Nicol had another great game virtually scoring all of the Carnegie touchdowns, as Neil showed incredible trust in the tall receiver. The final score was 39-33. Some say Henry Williams still hasn’t been tackled.
Congratulations to both MVP’s on the day Michael Bradley-Banszki (Buttonhookers) & Johnnie Kerr (London Smoke)
The rest of the Division One playoffs shocked us. We foresaw some big scores in the Premier Division, as parity seemed to reign in Division One. The script was flipped as the first round of the playoffs saw some shocking scorelines.
The Tydfil Trojans made light work of the Warrington Revolution. As much as it obviously upsets people to hear, the Revolution were again without some of their top contributors, including star receiver and defender Jake Shaw. The Trojans were awesome though, as they won 31-7.
The most eye-opening result from the first round though was the 34-6 destruction of the Nottingham Honey Badgers, authored by the Northants Titans White. The Honey Badgers came in with bundles of momentum from winning the MEC Division One, however they put in the flattest performance of the day against the Titans White, who’d been kept sharp towards the tail end of the season with some playoff-esque games against the Bedford Blackhawks and Coventry Cougars. Sam Tibbles made mincemeat of the Badgers defence, as they could get no pressure on the young signal-caller. Sophie Parsons seemed to be getting targeted on defence, but was up to the task as she had a number of excellent tackles to limit some Badger gains. The Titans White blitzing speed was a problem for the Honey Badgers’ QBs, as they helped themselves to numerous sacks and interceptions.
Things got better for the Honey Badgers, as they dismantled the Grangemouth Colts, while a 21-20 over the Warrington Revolutions gave them 5th place in Division One.
The Titans White won the third place playoff against the Trojans 66-0, as the wheels had well and truly come off for the South West participants.
The Blackhawks defeated the Colts in the 7th/8th place playoff, as the Colts were unfortunate to not score a point on the day. They’ve got more important fish to fry when they take part in the promotion/relegation games in September.