Sapphire Series Finals 2018 Review
Sapphire Series 2018 Review
Images courtesy of Geoff White and Andy M Neale
The weather did its best to disrupt things, but the Ballers of the Sapphire Series are made of stern stuff and the finals day schedule went ahead as planned, despite the intermittent blizzard conditions. The temperature may have been sub-zero but the action was hot as the teams battled it out.
Hosted by Manchester, the division one gold grouping semi-finals would see The Leeds Carnegie Chargers take on the London Warriors, and the reigning champion Birmingham Lions would be matched against the Manchester Titans. The Chargers had a tough battle with a physical Warriors team, but won out with a 34-14 score line. The Lions gave their rotational players the start against Manchester, and after a slow start they got on top of the Titans, securing the result 42-02. In the 3rd and 4th place decider the Warriors under the tutelage of coach Tony Allen had too much for the Titans, putting in a dominant display to earn a 34-0 win and third place overall. In the National Championship game we had a re-match of last year’s final. The Lions and Chargers certainly provided us with a game worthy of a final. Both teams had opportunities to score, and took them! This time Birmingham had their number1’s in from the off before rotating in all their depth. With key defenders Aimee Cottingham and Lucy Kirk unavailable, veteran linebacker Alice-Mary Smith, who was coming back from a long-term injury, flexed up and played a key role on the defensive line. Eventually the Lions strength in depth told, leading them to fifth National title on the back of a 40-22 shoot-out. Captains Jo Kilby and Phoebe Schecter offered their thoughts.
“I'm delighted and extremely proud to have lifted the Sapphire Series trophy on behalf of the team for an unprecedented fifth time” beamed Kilby, “alongside my co-captain, Afia Law, who has been a stalwart on and off the field this season. With a squad of 40 to rep in - which brings about its own challenges in terms of momentum and flow - the flip of this coin, is we have the strength in depth to call upon. A phenomenal 17 different players got on the score sheet across 4 rounds and 8 games, covering both offensive and defensive players...6 of the 17 scorers were rookies! We recruited 15 brand new players to the sport, i.e. women that hadn't played tackle football prior, and as such it's been particularly rewarding to see these guys earn their spurs, whilst buying into our culture and wearing the jersey with much pride”.
Schecter was her usual enthusiastic self “It was brilliant to play Manchester, as we hadn’t yet met in Sapphire. The overall level of the team has come on wonders, but their defence especially impressed! Playing Leeds is always an exciting time, as they are a tenacious team. This final was no different and they came out hungry in a back-and-forth touchdown battle in the first half. Even through the blizzard, the Lions did what they do best, and played with heart, chipping away to move the score line”.
Leeds GB international, Gaby Knops was philosophical about her team’s efforts. “The Carnegie Chargers came out confident, we fought a tough game against London but we had scouted hard and it paid off! We then played Brum, we knew this would be a tough game but every player gave everything, so proud of them all! Finally getting closer, and it was a great game of women’s football!!”
In the division one silver section the Hertfordshire Tornadoes went up against the East Kilbride Pirates, whilst the Edinburgh Wolves and the Derby Braves rounded out the card. Herts blanked the Pirates 36-0 and Derby convincingly tamed the Wolves 43-6 to progress to the 5th and 6th place contest. The braves showed that they had made big strides since last season pushing the Tornadoes all the way, but Herts edged it 36-33 in the closest game of the day to claim the fifth ranking place. In the battle for Scottish bragging rights, Edinburgh got the win over East Kilbride 27-8.
With all the votes in, the worthy winner of the Division MVP award was Leeds tenacious linebacker Robyn Steward.
The Sandwell Steelers were the hosts for the Division 2A finals. The six team series featured Sandwell, Portsmouth Dreadnoughts, Wembley Stallions, Chester Romans, Teeside Steelers and Cardiff Valkyries.
After a series of competitive games the Dreadnoughts and the Steelers met in the final in what proved to be a real barnburner! Ultimately Portsmouth triumphed 18-4. The 2A MVP was named as Sandwell’s linebacker (and GB Lions quarterback) Sydney Green, clearly a great all-round baller. She was already looking forward to next season “Honestly it was a privilege to play alongside and against so many talented players who’s first year it was at 7aside football. For people to play at such an exceptional level just shows how far this country has come in development in such a short space of time. Players such as Libby Davoren and Natalie Talbot showing the rookies how it is done is a proud moment for me, considering I’ve spent a lot of time around this club. I don’t think anyone quite expected the Steelers to put on the show they did this year but with Veterans on both sides of the ball steering the way - there was only ever silverware on our minds! Portsmouth were easily the toughest opponent we came across this year, physically and mentally challenging us each play. But I could not be prouder of the girls I shared the jersey with, and hopefully next year with another influx of rookies we can drive another step closer to division 1”.
In the division 2B finals four teams were set to battle it out. Oxford, Kent, Peterborough and Staffordshire were in the mix for the honours. Oxford came out on top, with Megan Brown claiming the MVP honours for her outstanding linebacker play. She was delighted with how the day had gone for the Saints. “We knew that it was going to be a tough finals day. We were facing Peterborough in the first game, and although we have won against them in our previous meets, we knew this was not going to be an easy game. Peterborough Royals have a strong run game drawing on their strong running back talent, which has caused problems for the Saints defence in the past. We have worked hard both on the practice field and in films sessions to combat this, and this combined with a strong offensive showing allowed us to win comfortably and move on to the finals, which we knew were likely to be against our stiffest competition yet, the Kent Exiles. The first half was particularly tense, it was running close and although we were up by 2 points at half time, we knew we had to stay focussed and not let history repeat itself. It was clear that we had made significant adjustments to both our offence and our defence that were going to disrupt Kent’s plans of clinching the title. Winning this Division 2B title just goes to show what the Saints are capable of and how far we have come as a team. Although we are still a relatively new team, I’m so proud of the team’s achievements so far and I really do think this team is going to go from strength to strength. We have increased our roster size considerably this year, and plan to work equally as hard on recruitment in this off season. Regarding winning Division MVP, it’s obviously amazing news for both me and the team, and I’m extremely appreciative and honoured to be receiving the award. Our defence has proven to be a force to be reckoned with this season, and I’m so proud to be a part of that. In two seasons of playing in theSapphire Series, the Oxford Saints have produced two league MVP’s, which I really think is a credit to our exceptional coaching."
All the tournaments served as great adverts for the rapidly developing women’s game. Mindful of the 2019 European Championships being on the horizon, BAFA’s head of women’s football Jim Messenger, will now take the time to reflect, and consider how best to encourage competition and participation for next season. Great strides have been made in a relatively short period of time, hopefully it won’t be too long before we see British Women’s teams playing full on eleven a side football.