It was the re-match everyone had been waiting to see, the incumbent Titans versus the erstwhile Warriors, but for both sides the road to Coventry had been blocked by a surging Bristol Aztecs team who really pushed both of them close during the 2023 season. Ultimately though, it was Manchester and London who rendezvoused at the Butts Park Arena to headline the climactic Britbowl weekend. The preceding games had all been high octane pulsating dramas, would the Prem final maintain the excitement? As the sun started to set and with the rain falling the floodlights came on, we were about to find out!
The nervous energy on both sidelines was evident as the captains made their way out to centre field. The Warriors won the toss and elected to defer. Ian Jacquet sent the ball high into the air, waiting for it to come back to earth was Zaheer Wilder, having secured the ball he returned it for ten yards. Manchester would now have the opportunity to make an impact on offence. Two runs from Joe Nicholson and a completed pass to Fulford gave the Titans a first down. Quarterback Sam Bloomfield was given good time in the pocket by his resolute offensive line and threw to the right sideline where speedster Tom Lovatt made the catch, eluded a would-be tackler and raced away for big yards, as he went out of bounds he was hit late, effectively gaining another fifteen. Manchester now had first down at the London seventeen. The Warriors defence with standout linebackers David Izinyon and Niall Scott-Grant at its heart showed their metal, stopping Nicholson for a loss and pressurising Bloomfield into an incomplete pass. It was fourth down and time for GB kicker Alex Lenkowski to take to the field. His forty-six-yard attempt was good and Manchester had the early lead 3-0. The kick-off was fielded by Taylor Burke who burst through the middle before being stopped at the Warriors twenty-six. London had a trio of elite running backs on the roster and first up was Raymond Sabowale, back from a spell with the Leipzig Kings of the European League of Football he took the hand-off from Dee Williams crashing through for four yards. Williams then decided to keep it himself and darted for a first down. Luc Benjamin then snagged a pass to leave London at third and four. Running back Leonardo Walter Dabo showed his pace, ripping the Titans defence for thirty yards and setting up the Warriors at the Manchester twenty. Benjamin is a physical miss-match for most defensive backs and when Williams found him with a quick pass, he ran through two tackles before diving over the pylon for the score. Jacquet nailed the PAT meaning London now had a 7-3 lead. With six minutes left in the quarter the Titans offence took to the field looking to regain the lead. What we witnessed though, were both defences taking the upper hand, forcing the punters into action before the end of the quarter.
Lovatt showed his speed and elusiveness – Image Jody Davies
The second quarter started with Jacquet punting deep to the Titans twenty. Bloomfield found Lovatt for a first down, then Nicholson powered his way for a further twenty yards. Wilder came in at quarterback for Manchester and kept the chains moving, the Titans were now at the London twenty- eight. Receiver Max Gracie-Ainscough won the battle to get open with cornerback Reece Waller and pulled in the ball, touchdown! Lenkowski was good with the PAT, moving the score to Titans 10, Warriors 7. London picked up the gauntlet that Manchester had thrown down and responded in style! Quarterback Williams took the ball in his own hands and made two decisive runs in quick succession. At the Titans thirty-eight the drive stalled, finding themselves at fourth and five, they decided to go for it. Williams saw Kadeem Crabbe in space deep over the middle and put the ball up, using his height and physicality he made the catch, broke a tackle and burst into the endzone, the touchdown and the converted pat from Jacquet edged the Warriors back in front 14-10! It was end to end stuff as Manchester made their reply. An unsportsmanlike penalty on the Warriors gave the Titans the ball at their own forty. Workhorse back Nicholson ran for eight and then another twenty-five. Bloomfield found Higgins for a short gain, but this time it was Manchester at fourth and five, they also decided to go for it. Bloomfield found Gracie-Ainscough at the six where he was immediately tackled. At first and goal the Titans went with a receiver screen to Adam Bamber, touchdown! By this stage the rain was definitely having an effect on the ball handling and the long snap for the PAT was mishandled. Manchester 16 London 14.
Nicholson was running with determination – Image Jody Davies
Benjamin fielded Lenkowski’s kick and returned it to the twenty-seven. Willams completed a screen pass to Crabbe, but he was tackled for a two-yard loss by Sam Fossey. Williams running keepers had worked well for the Warriors to this point and it did again, earning them a first down, but then a bobbled snap led to another loss of yards, this time Alex Cooper made the tackle. Linebacker Stuart Robinson read a sweep play perfectly dragging down the ball carrier in the backfield. At fourth and eighteen, London had to punt. After a short return by Wilder, and a completion to Bamber, Bloomfield hit Lovatt for a first-down. Nicholson added to his total, securing another first down as the two-minute warning was given. Manchester were running out of time, and after two incomplete passes, Bloomfield scrambled right. With the Warriors corner stepping up to assist the safety in what was developing as a run play, Gracie-Ainscough found himself wide-open. As he was about to be hit Bloomfield flicked the ball over the top into his receivers’ hands, Touchdown! Lenkowski got the job done with the kick, creating nine points of daylight between the two sides. Titans 23 Warriors 14. London had just over a minute to get some points on the board. Williams found Benjamin who made a diving catch for twenty-five yards, then Burke caught a pass but couldn’t get out of bounds, meaning the Warriors had to burn a time-out. Williams dropped back to pass but was sacked by Danny Barnes causing London to use their last time-out. A desperation heave by Williams was picked off by Alex Eager at the Manchester five ending London’s hopes of scoring before half-time. With seventeen seconds left on the clock the Titans took the knee. It had been a pulsating half with both sides making splash plays, but a lack of discipline had cost the Warriors at key moments. Still, there was everything to play for.
Benjamin was a constant threat for the Warriors – Image Jody Davies
London received the ball to start the second half, Taylor Burke taking the ball to the Warriors sixteen. Sobowale got the carry but was forcibly met by linebacker Mark Houghton, Williams then went airborne looking down the seam, but Henry Rowland lost his footing and Alex Eager made his second interception of the game. With the Titans back in possession Bloomfield fed Nicholson, who after two carries secured the first down. Wilder came in at quarterback and found Scott Higgins for a short gain. He then ran the ball himself but was driven back by Izinyon. It was now fourth down and after a time out Manchester decided to go for a long field goal. This time Lenkowski’s fifty-three-yard attempt went wide, giving London good field position. Dwayne Watson was introduced into the backfield alongside Sobowale, creating the impression that some power running was on the cards, two short runs later Williams dropped back to pass, but a forceful Joe Partington burst through the pocket to deliver a sack. Could there be more drama? Indeed there could! Jacquet’s ensuing high punt was fumbled by Wilder and recovered by the Warriors at the Titans twenty-five. Sobowale, shedding would be tacklers on the way, ran for fifteen yards, setting up London’s offence on the ten-yard line. With the formation showing heavy right personnel, Williams fainted in that direction, but then took of at speed to the left, sweeping behind a key block, he made it into the endzone! Jacquet secured the PAT and the gap was now down to just two points. Titans 23 Warriors 21. Sam Fossey returned the kick-off to the Titans thirty, but two penalties put them back at their own five. The Warriors defence were now flying around causing problems for Bloomfield and Lenkowski was called upon to punt the ball away. Williams was getting creative, spreading the ball around, but when a pass to Benjamin fell incomplete it looked like they too would have to settle for a field goal attempt, but not so fast, a roughing the passer penalty gave them a first down on the Manchester twenty. Williams looked for Benjamin in the endzone but a pass interference penalty on the Titans gave the Warriors the ball on the five and an automatic first down. A quarterback sneak was stopped, but then a déjà vu moment by Williams saw him fake a hand-off and sweep wide, this time to the right, it delivered the same result, touchdown! The Warriors went for the two-point conversion but a high pass from Williams flew out the back of the endzone. We now sat at Manchester 23 London 27. We were watching a bruising heavyweight encounter between Britball’s two best teams and as you might expect, Manchester came back swinging. Two big runs from Nicholson and a completion from Bloomfield to Bamber had the Titans sat at third and three on the Warriors forty-three-yard line as the third quarter came to a close. At this point in the game the lead had changed hands five times and with one quarter to go, it felt like the last team to score would probably get the win.
Williams was getting the job done on the ground and through the air – Image Jody Davies
Bloomfield looked to go deep to Gracie-Ainscough, but the pass fell incomplete, staring at fourth and four, the Titans decided to go for it. The result wasn’t just a first down, it was a touchdown! Wilder had caught the pass, dodged a would-be tackler, and sprinted to the endzone. The PAT from Lenkowski was good and Manchester now led 30-27. Rowland returned the kick and set the Warriors up on their thirty-two. London’s response didn’t go well. A penalty, a tackle for a loss and then a fumble gave the ball back to Manchester at the Warriors thirty. Nicholson ran for a first down, then was handed the ball again. This time he went straight North and South, part hurdled a defender and kept driving forward. A wave of Titans literally got behind him and despite strong resistance from the London defence, they drove him over the line into the endzone! Lenkowski delivered again, it was now Titans 37 Warriors 27. A ten-point deficit with around seven minutes left was the challenge the Warriors faced, but their next drive left them having to punt. The Titans couldn’t do any better though and also had to kick the ball away. What happened next was beyond belief. Lenkowski’s punt flew high into the night, as it descended deep towards the right corner the Warriors looked to have it covered, but with his back to the ball London’s return team player didn’t see it coming, incredibly the ball hit him on the back of his helmet and fell to the floor, it was “live” and the Titans recovered it. First and ten Manchester at the London eighteen. Two plays later Bloomfield found Bamber in space wide right, who made the catch and darted in for the score. Lenkowski delivered the extra point, stretching the lead to seventeen points, 44-27. There were six minutes and fifty-six seconds left in the game. The Warriors offence shifted up a gear. Walter-Dabo broke a run for thirty-five yards, then Williams tried to connect with Krabbe, the pass fell incomplete, but the Titans were called for roughing the passer. Now poised at the Manchester twenty-five, Sobowale got the call. He swept left delivering an angry stiff-arm before being tackled deep in the red-zone. Williams saw Krabbe tracking across the back of the endzone and launched the ball towards him, he got his hands to it but couldn’t bring it under control inbounds. The Warriors took a time out, and the crowd held their breath, it was fourth and five and they needed to score. Williams faked the hand off, and set off to the right, as he cut back inside he was hit hard and coughed up the ball! Danny Barnes recovered for the Titans and effectively, it was game over. Runs from Nicholson and Jonatan Pan Gago moved the chains and ate some clock, the officials then signalled the two-minute warning, leaving Manchester to adopt the victory formation. All that was left for Bloomfield to do, was to take the knee on successive plays. The referee held the ball aloft, the game was over, and The Manchester Titans were “Back-to-Back” British Champions!
Bloomfield takes it all in – Image Dave Tidswell
After the game I spoke with Bloomfield to get his thoughts. “The atmosphere heading into the game was very different to the previous year for both teams, I suspect. And it was an incredible game to be a part of. You could feel the tension on the pitch and our preparation served us well. All the work our coaches put in, the players, our staff - the end result is the product of unrelenting hard graft and I’m proud that we came away with such a team win. All three phases of the game had a huge role to play in our success and none more important than the other. Our defence, against their stiffest challenge to date, held firm against impressive opposition. Players like Alex Eager creating turnovers, huge stops by Stuart Robinson & Joe Partington as well as devastating hits by players like Jack Watson & Sam Fossey put the offence in a position to succeed all game. Alex Lenkowski and the special teams units scored points, gave us great field position and created what could’ve been the key turnover in the game. And offensively, the OL were phenomenal, whether protecting for the pass or creating holes for Joe Nicholson to rack up an unfathomable 170+ yards rushing. Our impressive run game helped our receivers, like Max Gracie-Ainscough and Adam Bamber put up scores and pull away in the 4th quarter. Jon Homer, Luke Carlton, George Foster & the coaching staff should be applauded for getting us ready for a battle, leaving no stone unturned and ultimately enabling us to lift the Boston Trophy once more. The Titans are eyeing up a third Britbowl championship in 2024 and plan to be competing in Europe in the CEFL. Recruitment starts soon.”
With five touchdown passes, Bloomfield was also named the Back-to-Back MVP. Interestingly, the last time a Northern team won successive Britbowls was in 1989 and 1990, they also came from Manchester, they were the legendary Spartans. Can the Titans do the “three-peat” I wouldn’t put it past them!
Images courtesy of Jody Davies Photography and Dave Tidswell