Now that we have our league, rules and schedule set, it’s time to preview the action we’ll see in the Northern divisions, starting with the Premier!
Highland North Conference (HNC)
Starting with the HNC (conferences inside divisions, don’t get us started), we see only five teams, as opposed to six. This is unfortunately due to the disbandment of the Dunbeth Dragons. The Dragons were a favourite of ours, and did some great stuff with a small squad, including an excellent playoff win against the MEC’s Manchester Titans last season. They’ll be missed from the league.
The usual heavy-hitters from the HNC are back, as the Aberdeen Oilcats, Glasgow Hornets and Grangemouth Broncos will all feel like they’re well equipped to compete for the top two places. And why shouldn’t they? They all essentially cancelled each other out last year, with Aberdeen turfing the Broncos out of the playoffs, and the Hornets booting the Oilcats. The three teams figure to compete again this season, but they all have some interesting story-lines coming into the year.
Starting with the Broncos, they’ll be disappointed by their early playoff exit last year, especially when they had already fairly soundly beaten the Oilcats in the regular season. They put in an error-strewn performance when it mattered, but we’ve got a lot of reasons to feel good about their chances this year. They’ve installed Fraser Thomson as their new head coach in an effort to flip the script and put them on top of the HNC. Their new development team, headed up by David Mooney, will give the Broncos a chance to keep their strongest five on the field at all times. This served them well at Flagging New Year this year, as they finished 6th in the strongest field we’ve had at the tournament.
We reckon the Broncos will benefit greatly from the move to a Premier Division. They could be accused of coming into big playoff games cold. They generally steamroll weaker competition, but when it comes to games against the heavyweights, they can show a little bit of naivety. With hyper-competitive games at every game day, their focus can’t drop if they want to push for a Championship bracket berth. Their impending visit to Big Bowl is another major positive for the program, as again they’ll have the benefit of playing some of Europe’s top competition and have an opportunity of transitioning that into their league play. It’s not all rosy though, as the Broncos will be without the services of Kevin Woods for the business end of the season. Kevin is a massive presence on offence and defence for the Broncos, and without him they’ll have a huge void to fill. Will the Broncos live up to their potential and claw their way into the Championship bracket?
The Oilcats put in one of the most awesome displays we’ve seen against the Hornets and Broncos in the Northern Playoffs last year, as their players began to drop like flies. By the end of their heartbreaking loss to the Hornets, it felt like they had no substitutes left! With this in mind, the fact that they pushed the Hornets so close is very impressive. With a full compliment of players, they know they can duke it out with any team in the BAFA leagues. They’ve also got a development team, so similarly they’ll be able to focus more on keeping their strongest personnel on the field. They’ve also recruited well, injecting even more speed into an excellent starting line up. They’ve obviously still got Gary Elliot to count on when the going gets tough, but they’ve built a strong supporting cast and will want to get back to Britbowl after missing out last season. The awesome roster the Oilcats had a few years ago though might not have a lot left in the tank, can they put in one last ride towards a title?
The Hornets will be overall disappointed with their 2017 as a whole. While some success was had at invitational tournaments, their year started with a poor showing at Flagging New Year, and they continued the trend with a flat outing at Champions Bowl. They then coasted in the league and made it to the Britbowl finals for the second consecutive year. A draw against the Birmingham Lions seemed somewhat favourable, but the Hornets put in a lacklustre performance when it mattered most, squandering a 10 point lead and crashing out at the very first hurdle. A shambolic showing against the Giants resigned the Hornets to 4th, and the Glasgow outfit returned home with a bitter taste in their mouth.
However, they’ve started 2018 somewhat positively. With a change in coaching, Gareth Cowie has taken over the Head Coach role, and a number of new recruits have been inserted into a star-studded Hornets lineup. They too have installed a development team into Division One, and were able to field a focused Hornets squad into the strongest Flagging New Year they have had since reaching the inaugural tournament final admittedly only against local opposition, and they performed well above expectations. They lost once in the tournament to the Sollerod Gold Diggers, and finished a UK-best 5th overall. They managed to score an impressive draw against the eventual champion Walldorf Wanderers, and picked up a huge scalp when they defeated the Baker Street Buttonhookers in a tense game. They’ve since won the Flagging Iron Man tournament, and will feel good coming into the 2018 season. Will it be a tale of redemption for the Glasgow Hornets?
Onto the surprise package from the 2017 season, the Inverclyde Comets come into their second season as a team in fine standing. We felt confident about their chances when we looked at their roster. Bud McFerren is a phenom, no two ways about it. He’s one of the quickest players in the league, and he’s assembled a strong cast at the Comets, with Chris Lang and David Pasnik providing plenty of experience and savvy. The Comets made it to the playoffs last year in large part because they focused on what they could achieve. They maintained a steady course throughout the year, and won the games they had to win.
Their attention was squarely on winnable fixtures, and they’ll need to do the same this year. With the step up in competition, they could be on for a couple of rough game days. However, it’s how they bounce back that’ll be the real story of their season. If they show resolve and resilience, they’ll prosper in the new format. Can they continue their ascendance and build on their playoff win from last year?
The Outlaws round off a strong HNC Premier Division, but they could be in some trouble this season. They probably have as much talent as the Comets overall, with players in the GB set up like Jamie Archibald and Alessandro Marello, but they had a poor 2017, namely as they were without a true starting quarterback who could help utilise the talent on the outside. They had a few brave showings during the year, including a close game against the Glasgow Hornets, and a spirited display against the Sheffield Giants in the playoffs, but it’s the losses to the Steelers and Comets that has us concerned for their survival prospects. We’ve heard rumblings that the Outlaws are confident that they’ve found a quarterback, and if so, that would be a huge step towards securing their survival. If they manage to field a competent signal caller, they could drag the Comets into a relegation dog-fight. But as things stand, they face an uphill battle.
Middle England Conference (MEC)
The MEC has arguably the most intriguing division (conference? This is a nightmare) in terms of who will take second place. Let’s start with who’s inevitably going to end up top of the heap.
The Sheffield Giants finished the 2017 season as the 3rd best team in the UK, doing it the hard way after they came into the playoffs as the #2 seed from the MEC. Playing every round, they fell only to the eventual champion Buttonhookers. Coming into 2018, they’ll feel their place in the MEC is solidified, but we’ll come on to that later. With one of the best defences in Britain, the Giants will be confident facing every team in the Premier North, as they’ve got pedigree and Britbowl aspirations. Just look at how they dom–in–ated our players of the season awards for the MEC, and they have the MEC MVP in Josh Allen. They’ve added to their ranks, but we’ll get to that later…
They finished a somewhat disappointing 9th at Flagging New Year, but they were in arguably the group of death with two of the teams who finished in the top four. They’ve got Big Bowl to look forward to as well, which will surely give them a competitive edge as we approach the most pivotal games of the season.
The team who actually finished above the Giants in the MEC standings last year were the Newcastle Blackhawks. You’re probably wondering why we’re so confident about the Giants this year, and it’s mostly because the Blackhawks figure to take a dip in fortune this year. Most of their biggest contributors towards their success last year are on the road out. First up, efficient play of Ewan Miller under centre will be missing, as he’s left Newcastle. The performances of Mike Dunn, who returned from his stint with the Hornets to terrorise MEC defences once again will be absent, as Mike has undergone surgery. We will Mike well in his recovery! Making matters worse, is the departure of Mantas Ceckauskas. Mantas, on top of being one of the nicest guys ever, had developed into one of the more reliable receivers for the Blackhawks, and punctuated his excellent 2017 with a GB Silver Lions spot. He’s off to the Sheffield Giants, and will provide the Sheffield squad with another dangerous weapon. These are huge losses, and might be impossible to overcome. As we mentioned with the Outlaws, a quarterback makes all the difference, and without a recognised and competent figure calling the shots, you face an uphill battle. Still, they’ve got some excellent pieces, as Phil Watson continues to be one of the best blitzers in the country.
Their prospects? We’re fearful. Honestly, their season hinges on whoever is under centre. And we don’t mean just this year, but they could be in trouble in the future if they don’t find a suitable replacement for Ewan never-mind the over supporting cast members
The Manchester Titans are the team who could mount the most realistic challenge to the Sheffield Giants for the top spot in the MEC. The Titans spent a number of years doing fairly well, but last year their fortunes turned as they went from mid-table to champions. They owe a large amount of that success to the awesome play of David McInally. David was no stranger to flag, having featured for the Glasgow Tigers in the youth leagues in Scotland. He’s found a new home, and is a two-way star for the Titans, who needed a jolt to get them over the hump. They’ve got one of the savviest QBs in Alan Mead, who knows how to manipulate a defence. Jay Pitchford and Rick McEwen provide even more weapons for Alan to use. They took a huge step up last year, but can they continue that trend in 2018?
In the red (maroon?) half of Manchester, the Crows look to show why they were highly rated going into last season. Unfortunately, injuries and the ascendance of the Titans meant that the Crows had a bit of a downturn, but they’ve got plenty of talent to cause issues for the other teams in the Premier North. The returning Crows Quarterback Talha Javed will be looking to pick up where he left off last season. Before going down with injury, he was third in our MEC Top QBs race, and finished sixth overall come season end, which is pretty incredible given the number of games he missed. Talha brings experience under centre, and gives the Crows a legitimate top QB in their respective conference.
He’ll have a new toy, as the Cheshire Cavalier’s Sergio De Paco has taken his talents to the Crows. Sergio finished sixth overall in his race for the MEC Offensive Player of the Year, and brings a physical presence to the Crows receiving corps. If you combine that offensive firepower with a bonafide defensive ballhawk in Matt Wilkinson, then you have a recipe for success. Can the Crows bounce back this year?
The Sheffield Vipers have become a constant presence in the playoff picture for a number of years now. Their 2017 season came to a premature end at the hands of the Inverclyde Comets in somewhat of an upset (even if we did kinda call it). However they’ll have a lot less question marks than a lot of other teams in their division. Their QB situation is settled with the work of Keith Woodley, who is one of the more cerebral and efficient quarterbacks in the MEC. It helps when you’ve got a pair of receivers like Tom Fowkes and Luke Bennett to throw to though. The former is also an excellent defensive contributor, who will punish QBs as effectively as he helps out his own. They’ll have to replace the 14 TDs that Mike Sullivan brought to the table though, as the veteran Viper has left for pastures new. We don’t have much doubt that Keith will find a way though, and the Vipers will be looking to take a step forward this season towards challenging the Giants.
Last but certainly not least is the Leeds Samurai. The Samurai have been busy since their playoff appearance last year, including participating at Jags 7s and Flagging Iron Man. They’ve clearly used the experience gained at invitational tournaments in the past and applied this to their league form. Kyle Taylor finished with an impressive 38 TDs thrown, most of which to speed demon Jonny Dudley, but will need to cut out the interceptions and sacks taken to help the Samurai survive in this division. Their defence proved to be porous in the competitive MEC last year, but the tight knit squad will be hoping their ever-improving chemistry and cohesion will lead to better results in the league. Can they make an impression on this loaded division?