The South have been home to the BAFA league champions ever since the Kirkcaldy Bulls hung up their boots. With two incredible competitive divisions to look forward to, we preview how each team is shaping up!
South Eastern Conference (SEC)
Starting with the obvious, ladies and gentlemen the champs are here. The Baker Street Buttonhookers won it all in their first year in the league, and they did it in style. It wasn’t necessarily much of a surprise, as they have a star studded line-up. With GB Lions QB Vince Machi earning much of the headlines throughout the year, an underrated part of their game was the fantastic defensive performances of Josh Nicholson and Ryan Loftus. They’re definitely one of the most well-rounded teams in the South, and that should serve them well. They are however coming off a disappointing Flagging New Year performance, where the team looked to lack any semblance of the cohesion and understanding that was a trademark of their offensive firepower last season. This might be due to them adding another talented receiver in Michael Bradley-Banszki. He looked sensational in his first action of the year, winding up in the team of the tournament. We’re confident though that any jitters displayed at will be gone by the time their opening slate of fixtures rolls around. They’re in a tough conference, but are one of the hot favourites coming into the year.
The biggest challenge to the Buttonhookers will likely come from the 2016 champions, the London Rebels. The Rebels were in the unfamiliar position of being absent from the Britbowl finals last year, as they were ousted by the Buttonhookers in the Southern playoffs. They lost narrowly, but were missing Akshay Singal and Kenny Bello. It’s a testament to the Rebels, and QB Calvin Tarlton, that they were able to go blow-for-blow with the Buttonhookers when down their top two targets. The Rebels have strength in depth however, and Jeremy Meslien provided Calvin with another big receiver to an already loaded offence. Tim Eaton leads a resilient defence who adapt well within games. The Rebels will surely be targeting a place in the Championship bracket, and we’d be shocked if they weren’t there.
The Reading Lions will be looking to cause an upset and get into the Championship bracket off the back of their victory at the BAFA Pre-season Tournament. They defeated the Grangemouth Broncos in a tense final, and will look to take a step forward in their development as a team. QB Nick Schippers is one of the more talented QBs in the Southern division, and with a top tier QB, you always have a good chance against the other sides. Couple that with talented receivers in Dom Howard and Matt Bacon and you’ve got an offence that’s capable of keeping pace with any team they face. Defensively though, they maybe don’t match up with the other teams in their conference. Their star offensive players just so happen to be their most effective defensive contributors, with Dom and Nick both snagging five interceptions apiece last season. If they’re to contend, they’ll need to hope their offence doesn’t slow down against the heavy hitters in the division.
The Victoria Park Panthers are in the premier division by virtue of the West Essex Showboats withdrawing from the league, but there’s no doubting their credentials. They came 4th in the league in 2016, and had an excellent 2017 campaign, going undefeated against every team not called the Buttonhookers or the Rebels. In a tough SEC Central, they finished 10-4 and will feel confident about their ability to step up and compete with the best teams in the division. The Panthers are a small, close knit squad who have incredible synergy and compete all across Europe at invitational tournaments. Their offence is headlined by Charlie Douglas, whose height is a match up nightmare for most defensive players. Matt Turner provides QB Pete Coppenhall with one of the safest intermediate targets in the league, while Mark Streather and Will Abel turn over opposition offensives with high frequency. The Panthers with a bit of luck could crack into the Championship bracket, but one thing is for sure – they’ll be stiff opposition for every team in their division.
The Chichester Sharks round off a strong SEC, and will look to secure survival in the division this season. The Sharks are led by the incumbent Neil Henderson, who had a tremendous 2017 campaign, leading his team to a playoff victory. Nearly everything the Sharks do goes through Corey Bedford, as the young Shark grabbed a ridiculous 26 offensive TDs. The Sharks actually won the SEC South of the Reading Lions, but we’re not sure if they’ll be able to repeat the feat next year. They’ll need other contributors to step up if they’re to compete against a much higher quality of opponent.
South Western Conference (SWC)
The SWC had one representative in the final last year, and that was the Birmingham Lions. The Lions got well and truly shellacked against the Buttonhookers, after an intense semi-final victory against the Glasgow Hornets. Their defensive vulnerabilities were taken advantage of by the awesome firepower that the Hookers possess, but that isn’t the main reason why they should be worried going into this year. They had arguably the best signal caller in the game in Tristan Varney, who returned to the BAFA league with a bang, throwing a ridiculous 92 TDs in a strong SWC. Tristan won’t be there for the Lions this year, which is a catastrophic loss. You don’t just replace 92 TDs, but there’s enough talent to keep the Lions competitive. Drew Newiss remains one of the best receivers in the UK, so whoever ends up under centre will have a reliable target. Defensively, they do have pieces to match up against the stronger offences in the league, as Paul Zinkus and Louis Clarke are both studs on that side of the ball. Everything hinges on the QB position for the Lions. They can always tap into the incredible talent that their kitted side has, but it’s how that translates to flag. We’re not worried about their premier division status, but a championship place might be hard to obtain if the offence isn’t as explosive as last season.
Falling just short of Britbowl were the Cardiff Hurricanes, as the former champions will look at advance to the championship bracket this season. They’ll surely smell blood in the water with the Lions somewhat weakened. The Hurricanes are one of the more established teams in the league, and have plenty of flag savvy. How they perform depends almost entirely on who shows up for the squad though. Joe Cotterill is a mercurial talent who produces at a high level on both sides of the ball. Without Joe, the Hurricanes look very, very beatable. With him in the lineup, they can compete with anyone. Matt Thomas has improved into one of the elite QBs in the conference, and he has his defence to thank for producing a ridiculous 32 interceptions to give him every chance to add to his impressive TD tally. The Hurricanes are perfectly capable of causing waves in the South division, and we’d expect them to advance comfortably to the championship bracket.
Entering three teams into the league this year is going to be difficult, but trying to juggle championship aspirations with that might be impossible. The Northants Titans Blue will be doing just that, as their impressive program have been successful both on and off the field. The Titans rely heavily on their ball-hawking defence, led by Connor Melay. Connor preyed on a number of the weaker QBs in the SWC, but those chances won’t come as easy this season as the level of competition increases. His output will also be affected by the departure of blitzer-extraordinaire Harry Brailey, who contributed 37 sacks to the cause last season. Offensively, Adam Grindrod was a huge difference-maker for the Titans, as the consistent presence under centre provided the Titans with a bonafide top tier offence. Typically, he won’t be back this season, as the Titans will look to Matt Tibbles to replicate the form which had the Titans White competing for the playoff spots last season. Matt will have Nathan Coles at receiver, who provides a difficult matchup for any cornerback. At centre, Jordan Melay has the ability to take over any game. The Titans’ fortune, like the Lions, will be depend on the capability of their chosen quarterback.
The Coventry Cougars took a huge step forward in their development by sealing a Premier division place last season with an up-and-down season. They finished a respectable 8-7 last year, but their results went from the sublime to the ridiculous. They scored big wins over the Titans, Hereford Stampede and had narrow losses against the Lions and Hurricanes. Then, they’d go ahead and get soundly beaten by the Exeter Falcons and Plymouth Buccaneers. No disrespect to the latter teams, but it made it hard to get a read on the Cougars all season. They’re one of the most exciting teams to watch but can also be extremely frustrating. James Ashmore provided some stability at the QB position for most of the season, and this happened to coincide with the Cougars’ purple patch of results. They’re the definition of a boom-or-bust squad, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see them competing for a championship spot, but equally we wouldn’t be shocked if they were fighting against relegation. We’re excited to see how they measure against better competition, as they tend to play up against stronger opponents.
The Northants Phantoms enter the Premier division after an impressive 2017 campaign that saw them finish 11-4, just one game behind the Titans in the SWC Central. The Phantoms rely heavily on their efficient office, with Jeremy Smith excelling in 2017 with a 62 TD passes. He does an excellent job of limiting his mistakes as well. Almost everything the Phantoms do on the field goes through either Stuart Tarry (29 TDs) or Luke Hoskin (27 TDs), with the latter chipping in eight passing TDs also. Defensively however, the Phantoms don’t have a lot of heavy hitters. Their blitz is somewhat inconsistent, with no real recognised member of the team in that role (five different players recorded multiple sacks for the Phantoms). Their stop-unit also produced 17 interceptions all season – that’s seven less than Connor Melay got on his own for the Titans. If the Phantoms are to survive, they need to hope their offence stays consistent, and pray their defence improves. All this, while taking on a much higher quality of opponent.
Rounding off the SWC is the Aylesbury Vale Spartans. Migrating from the SEC, the Spartans move to a conference that geographically suits them. And in terms of the teams they’ll face, it suits them as well. The Spartans enjoyed a lot of success last season with a lack of consistency at the QB position. Harry Staszewski provided good output for the majority of the season, however, with Staszewski’s departure to Leighton Steam, it means that the Spartans will need to employ Jeff Bond at QB. Jeff has blazing speed that troubles defences which may be utilised in a QB Wildcat offence, as he finished with 18 offensive TDs last season. The Spartans could afford to make this concession as they have one of the most talented receivers in the league in Dan Benning to rely on. Dan won our SEC Offensive Player of the Year award, and impresses every time we see him. With silky smooth routes and excellent hands, Dan will continue to frustrate some of the top ball-hawks in the SWC. The Spartans add another twist into an interesting SWC season!