Andrew Gambrill – Flying the flag!
Flag football is currently enjoying a great surge in popularity. The combination of fast-paced action without the level of contact that tackle football provides, is proving to be an attractive proposition, particularly with female players. At the head of the Women’s flag game in Britain, is veteran Britballer Andrew Gambrill. I caught up with him recently to get an update.
I asked Andrew how he became involved in the women’s flag format. “It was quite a pivotal moment. I had come to the end of my playing career, mainly due to age related injuries and it was a good time to take stock. I had run youth academies at Leicester and Coventry for around 15 years, with a strong emphasis on equality of opportunity for girls. I had always hoped that by producing winning mixed teams it would influence others around me, but we were always the exception. It was at that point I sat down with Phil Gaydon and Pete Coppenhall of Warwick University and we talked about having a wider influence. So we set up The Warwick Wolverines and Coventry University Jets for a Varsity game and from that, we set up the Elite Women's Project.
The EWP was an all-women’s team, that was essentially about developing the individual skills of women throughout the country. That culminated in taking the first ever UK squad to the “Big Bowl”, the biggest flag football tournament in Europe. That was a great experience for all of us, being able to play against other women. At that point I was invited by Jim Messenger to join BAFA to help further develop Women's flag football, helping to set up the Opal Series. The Opal Series grew to a point where the National Programme decided to enter a GB team. That interview was one of the toughest I have ever attended!”
What's your playing background in British Football, teams, positions etc?
“I started playing tackle football in the 80’s. Unfortunately, the four teams I joined all folded, one didn’t even make it past the preseason. So that was four teams in three years. When the fourth team folded I had no teams in my locality, so I joined the Leicester Eagles and really never looked back. I got to play with some incredibly talented guys, Nick Burt, Andre Clarke, Craig Broughton and World Bowl winner Jeff Brown. We started a youth team too and again I was lucky enough to coach youngsters like James Hossack, John Pimperton and James Malloch. After about twelve years with the Eagles I joined my home town Coventry Jets and got to play with some incredibly talented US and Canadian players, who taught me a lot”.
What's the structure in Britain, leagues, tournaments, international?
“Currently, the main league is the BAFA Opal Series, which runs from October to December. The game outside of this is still evolving, but the plan is to have monthly open tournaments around the country to keep the interest going. GB generally practice monthly too. GB carry a squad of thirty around the year with bi-annual World and European championships. We do look to play in non-championship tournaments too. Additionally, at club level there are a number of international tournaments that a lot of our clubs enter. Some national sides enter these tournaments, but we have opted not to enter as a national team, but to give the opportunity for clubs and their players to develop. If a GB side were to enter, that would have a negative effect on the club sides”.
How does the format work, number of players on a team, game time, scoring mechanisms, playing equipment?
“It’s a 5 a side game, 20 minute halves (18 minutes running clock and 2 minutes “official timing” A TD is 6 points, with the try after TD being worth 1 point if scored from the 5 yard line or 2 points from the 12 yard line. Much like Tag Rugby the only specific equipment is the tags on the hips which are there to be pulled instead of the physical tackle”.
Who are the current British Champions?
“Coventry Cougars are the current champions, beating Sheffield Hallam recently. The Cougars have won the Opal Series 3 times with Only the London Warriors breaking their win streak in 2015”.
What has helped generate the surge in interest, (Jags sevens?) and given flag a higher profile?
“I’m not sure the Jags sevens had much of an impact on the women’s game, as the competition was a mixed league with most entrants being men. The Jags Sevens is also a different format to the IFAF rules that we play under. I think there has been a general social movement, to encourage sports to make themselves more open to women. You look around now, in the UK and our footy, Cricket, Hockey & Rugby Union teams are doing incredibly well and raising the profile of women in sport. When I started, there were a handful of girls playing in a few youth teams and now we have one of the biggest leagues in Europe”.
How do you see Flag progressing going forward?
“We are still very much in our formative years and it’s a critical period. The need for us to work together is key to progress the sport. The game sells itself, once people have played they become hooked and develop a passion for the game. It’s up to us at BAFA to harness that passion and organise the game in a way that is equitable, affordable and sustainable. The chance for growth is massive.
We attended our second European Championships in Copenhagen in Denmark. We went 3-1 only losing to the eventual champions. However, we beat Israel who have been a perennial powerhouse, which was a great feeling but also we feel has laid down a marker for us and sent a message to the other nations”.
Cleary Andrew is an enthusiastic advocate of the game, and the evidence of its growth is there to see, as the Opal series is ever expanding and more Universities are setting up Women’s Flag teams. If you get the chance, go along and support one of the local tournaments, I’m sure you’ll be impressed.