Following the latest BAFA restructure the Division 1 Southern Football Conference has been split in two. Here we’ll take a look at the newly minted SFC 1 Central and provide you, dear reader, with an overview of who is competing in your area and what to expect from 2017.
Starting with the new kids on the block, the Oxford Saints marched over all challengers in Division 2 last year going 10-0 with an average scoreline of 44-10. Achieving their first division title since 2006 the Saints feel they’re back where they belong in Division 1. An influx of linemen from the Cornish Sharks and even some players with Division 1 balling experience – Ady Simmons from the Coventry Jets and Nick Bob-Manuel from Sussex Thunder – has done little to soften the blow of losing American QB Destin Maulding, as both of their pre-season games ended in defeats to Farnham Knights (42-0) and Leicester Falcons (49-21). Perhaps this is due to getting reps for rookies and ironing out kinks in the scheme, believable and true to form as they suffered a similar defeat to the high flying Bury Saints in pre-season last year, we’re left to wonder if the broad shoulders of GB team member James Walter can carry the team in this more competitive environment.
In contrast to the Saints who moved up last year, the South Wales Warriors took a voluntary relegation out of the Premiership in to this division. Head Coach Geraint Roberts was willing to provide an insight in to this decision;
“Our much reported request for demotion was tough, but one that we felt had to be made if we were stay in the league. I have no doubt that if we remained blind to the clear facts in front of us, that we simply could not play (let alone compete) another season in the Prem, then we would have been this years’ London O’s and forfeiting games. Except with this years changes, we would have been forced to go associate and not drop to Div 1.”
The South Wales Warriors finished 3-6-1 and have lost a lot of starters so may struggle against some of the stronger teams. Moving to a new ground has helped them recruit a healthy rookie class, and the ability to host weekly classroom sessions should allow them to overcome any issues with football IQ. This will be the first year as Offensive Coordinator for Dean Jackson, we’ll see if he leans heavily on RB Shaun Vaughn who has been a dominant part of the South Wales Warriors offense for a number of years. The two year ban on post season eligibility following their voluntary relegation might be just the break they need to bring through some of the home grown talent they’ve developed, with two age ranges entered in to the BACL this year.
The final new comer to the SFC1 Central are the realigned Ouse Valley Eagles. Playing last year in the MFC 1, they had a disappointing 4-6 season with 2 of those wins awarded following Peterborough’s withdrawal from the league. Averaging less than 2 scores a game they’ll need to prove they can put points on the board because their defense is unlikely to be able to keep them in games. It seems we’re not the only ones to notice this as they’ve made a few changes in their coaching staff, last years Offensive Coordinator Neale McMaster has been named Head Coach and will run the defense with his previous position being filled by Nick Tilbury who was the QB coach at the Saxons. With the team expecting 75% of the squad to return, including playmaker Ross Howard, they’ll hope that the coaching staff can forge a competitive squad for the upcoming season.
Now to the teams that didn’t excel or dismay in 2016. The Solent Thrashers had a tumultuous off season, with an end to their relationship with their junior/youth academy and departure of Head Coach Graham Thorpe. His replacement, Steve Rains, has an impressive resume having coached across a variety of teams including GB Lions Juniors and Team England, as well as earning a Britbowl victory in 2004 with the Personal Assurance (Farnham) Knights. The Thrashers will be hoping that this wealth of experience can help right the ship after a disappointing 5-5 season. With 4 of those wins coming against teams they won’t face in 2017 (Hertfordshire Cheetahs and Colchester Gladiators) and a 1-1 record against the one they do (Sussex Thunder) their fortunes depend on whether they can impose their will on their new rivals.
Last but not least come the Sussex Thunder. As the only team in 2016 that didn’t lose every game to the Bury Saints they head in to the 2017 season as the presumptive favourite. Narrowly missing out of post season football last year with a 5-4-1 record they’ll be heading in to this season full of confidence in their ability to have a winning season, Bury have been promoted and Kent Exiles were realigned to the SFC 1 East. They’ll start their season with 3 away games back to back but their schedule becomes friendlier after that, especially the two home games against the Oxford Saints who they dispatched with ease in the 2015 Quarter Finals. With a team with the likes of Mike Gumbs, Roland Williams, and Tom Kelly lighting up the field under Head Coach Ian Ellis’ leadership, I’d be surprised if Sussex Thunder don’t end up going deep in to the post season.