European Championships - GB v France – Lenkowski Legs it for the Lions!
August the fifth 2023 gave us a cold wet and windy afternoon at the Butts Park Arena in Coventry, where the GB Lions hosted France in an IFAF European Championship encounter. The winners would progress to the Fifth-Place game in what is a protracted format to establish Europe’s top National programme. It was the first time the Brits had played on home turf since 2019. Last time out they had travelled to Italy where they suffered a narrow loss. Head Coach Jason Scott along with his coaches and players, were determined to get the win in front of their raucous fans after the months of hard work they had put into their preparations. Since taking over as Head Coach, Scott had cast the net far and wide in the Britball community to find the players that were not only athletically and technically gifted, but importantly had the right focus and mindset to “trust the process.” All was set then for the battle to commence.
France won the toss and elected to defer, giving the Lions offence the first opportunity to get some points on the board. Josh Allsebrook of the Tamworth Phoenix was in at quarterback and immediately looked to air it out to speedster Struan Bailey, unfortunately they narrowly failed to connect. Shortly after GB had to punt, Alex Lenkowski pinning the French deep in their own territory.
Bailey evades the French Defence
The pattern of play had the Lions looking more threatening with featured running back Aaron Sekwalor eating up the yards. The French were struggling to move the chains with the British Defence smothering their efforts. Poised on their own forty-five-yard line Sekwalor broke a big run around the left end for the Lions and reached the eight-yard line before being tackled. Three plays later and the Brits attempted a field goal, but it was blocked! France were already deep in their own territory when their quarterback was sacked by Nelson Charles Nwufoh and they were forced to punt the ball away to end the first quarter.
Nwufoh takes the quarterback to the ground
The wet conditions were making ball handling difficult and a miscue in the British backfield led to the French taking over on their own forty-eight. Alas for them, they couldn’t find any momentum and punted the ball back to the Lions. Sekwalor and Joe Nicholson made promising runs but ultimately in this phase of the game we witnessed a succession of three and outs for both teams. With half time fast approaching the Brits were looking to get an advantage going into the break. Allsebrook unleashed a deep pass with receiver Joe Hamilton the target. Sadly “target” was the appropriate term as that’s exactly what the French defensive back, Ranki did, impacting Hamilton in the head causing him to drop the ball. The Frenchman was justifiably ejected from the game and was roundly booed as he blew kisses to the crowd. With seconds left in the half Allsebrook went long again, the ball cannoned of the helmet of a defender and into the out- stretched hands of tight-end Henry Rowland, who reached the French ten before being wrestled to the ground. Half time had arrived with the Lions looking more likely to take the lead, however, the scoreboard was still showing 0-0.
The French received the ball to start the second half but were almost immediately under pressure again from the Lions defence. Linebacker Mark Stewart burst through to deliver a sack, leaving the French to punt at fourth and thirty-nine! The Brits were stringing some plays together but weren’t able to deliver a drive of consequence. Nicholson, Allsebrook, Tyrell Boville and Bailey all made dynamic runs but the French defence managed to keep the Lions at bey throughout the quarter.
At the start of the fourth quarter Boville ran for a first down, but the Lions ended up having to punt. At this point, in an effort to change things up, France made a switch at quarterback. Initially it paid dividends with two first downs in succession, the momentum was now with the French and a rainbow pass deep left was caught, leaving them knocking on the door at the Brits three-yard line. Three incomplete passes left them attempting a field goal, which was blocked! The crowd erupted as they celebrated the goal-line stand.
The new French quarterback was having success through the air
With just over four minutes left in the game the tension was palpable. Allsebrook scrambled for a first down, then threw to Lewis Kirby to keep the chains moving. It was fourth and three at the French forty-one, it looked like Lenkowski was going to be given the chance to open the scoring with a field goal. The kicking unit took to the field with back up quarterback Sam Bloomfield in position as the holder. He quickly went under centre and barked his cadence, a panicked French defence jumped offside, giving the Brits the first-down! Three small gains edged the Lions closer, giving Lenkowski another opportunity to unleash his leg power. If he made it, it would be a fifty yarder. The snap and the hold were good, the ball sailed up and through the posts the crowd went crazy, but hold on, there’s a flag on the Lions. Too many players in the backfield meant the score was wiped off! And the kick has to be re-taken, this time the French block it and we’re staring down the barrell of overtime. After France are forced to punt, the Brits get the ball back with forty-two seconds left. A run and a quick lateral see Sekwalor racing down the sideline, but he’s forced out of bounds and regulation time is over.
IFAF use the same overtime rules as the NCAA, meaning each team get a possession from the opposition twenty-five to drive the ball in for points. If neither of them manage it at the first attempt, then they get another go. The Lions win the toss and choose to let France go first. A big running play sets up a pass down the middle, it’s caught for a touchdown and the crowd fall silent.
The exuberant French receiver is called for taunting, meaning that the Brits will start their drive at the French ten. But first France must attempt the extra point. They go for the kick and…it’s blocked!
Cheered on by the crowd the Lions set up at the ten, Allsebrook hands off to Sekwalor who races in behind some key blocks on a textbook sweep play around the right end, touchdown!
Sekwalor had pounded the French defence all-day and deserved the game MVP award he received
With the score now tied at six a piece, up steps Lenkowski, seemingly unphased he measures his approach and launches his trusted boot through the ball which flies through the posts to win the game for the Lions. Absolute scenes ensue!
Lenkowski sends the ball on its way to win the game
After it had all calmed down, I reached out to Coach Scott for his thoughts on Lenkowski’s kicking and the upcoming fifth place game which will be against Denmark who defeated Croatia.
“Despite the scoreline, I don’t think the game was ever in doubt - especially given how we have trained over the past eight months. Wins like this are built on the training ground, after watching hours and hours of tape, and enjoying the process with your teammates. It’s no surprise that Alex hit the winning points - he has been clutch for as long as I’ve known him. He’s a great player and a great leader and deserves the victory. It’s a relatively tight turnaround for the Danes now, we have to get a lot in before the game at the end of October. I’m confident with this team we can do anything!”
Jason Scott hears the Lions and their fans roar!
Images courtesy of Jody Davies Sports Photography