BAFA NL ’19 | Season Preview: Adult Division One

The summer seasons are upon us – and the weather’s starting to recognise it, too, it seems!

Yes, the National Leagues get underway this weekend with Flag, U17 Contact and Adult Contact action – and now I’m finally healthy enough to make it as far as a computer, let’s take a quick peek at the three tiers of the Adult National Leagues, and what to expect from each conference in 2019!

We kicked things off yesterday looking at the southern and northern halves of Division Two, and now we’ll move onwards and upwards to take a look at the middle tier and how promotion, relegation and realignments have reshaped the four regions of football in Div One:

The NFC 1 North sees two new additions for 2019, as they receive arrivals from above and below in the form of two Scottish programmes whose fates took divergent pathways last summer: an undefeated campaign for the Aberdeen Roughnecks saw them complete their climb to middle tier football, while a desperately disappointing season for the former northern powerhouse, the East Kilbride Pirates, means Scotland’s largest football programme will need to bounce back in a big way this year in order to re-establish their Adult outfit as a title contender.

Indeed, it’s not like the former Prem North champions want for talent – they’ve got one of the most productive and successful development programmes in the country with U17s and U19s teams that consistently take silverware back north of the wall. However, they’ve struggled to turn their prospects into performance on the field in recent seasons, unable to keep pace with other emerging Northern contenders. They last wore the Prem North Crown in 2015, and found themselves unable to take a single scalp last summer, despite some incredibly close contests, particularly with local rivals the Edinburgh Wolves. A change-up in coaching staff wasn’t enough to salvage their season, though Jamie McLaughlin will return in the Head Coach role after assuming the position on an interim basis in May. Can the Pirates right the ship with an immediate return to top tier balling this season?

Well, certainly their task will be far from easy, as the NFC 1 North is home to a number of other teams with their sights set on top tier football.

First among these is surely the Northumberland Vikings, who secured the NFC 1 North crown for the first time in 2018 with an undefeated regular season – going so far as nearly ousting promotion favourites, Leicester, in the Northern final when a late score gave the Vikings an unexpected lead deep in the fourth quarter. Instead, they return to the middle tier football for yet another year, and having come up short by the smallest of margins last summer will surely see anything less than promotion as coming up short. Their rapid climb up the Britball ranks is in no small part to the strong links they’ve built with 2017/18 BUCS champions, Durham, along with a growing development programme. It’ll be interesting to see whether the recent BAFA announcements re: foreign nationals impact the Vikings’ season as a couple of key pieces of their offence last season brought experience from across the pond.

Of course, another outfit that shouldn’t be discounted are the Yorkshire Rams, who found themselves missing out on middle tier postseason action for the first time in 2018. Key defeats to the Wolverines and Vikings ensured the playoffs were out of reach, and the Rams closed out 2018 parting ways with Head Coach David Paws. In his place, the Rams have continued to develop their partnership with the Leeds Academy of American Football, which expanded and rebranded as the Yorkshire Academy of American Football last year, appointing Leeds Beckett Carnegie Head Coach, Dale Bottomley, to head up the Rams coaching staff in 2019. Bottomley comes into the season fresh off the success of Carnegie’s first BUCS National Championship, and will aim to bring similar success to the newly purpled Rams this year. They shook off the dust this preseason with a trip to the Prem North’s Manchester Titans, so will be well aware of what’s expected of them if they seek a return to the top tier this season.

That’s not to say the remaining outfits should be considered ‘also-rans’. The Gateshead Senators‘ 3-6-1 2018 record belies a team that pushed the likes of the Vikings and Wolverines hard in the early part of the season, before struggling down the stretch. Having opened their campaign with a tie and 1-point loss to the top two teams in their conference last season, if Gateshead are able to rediscover that form, and most importantly maintain it, they could definitely make things interesting this summer.

Half a game behind the Senators last season were the Glasgow Tigers, who joined the conference following promotion in 2017.  They opened the year with a decent-looking 2-1 start to the season, but a thumping Week Seven loss to the Vikings made it clear that though the Scottish outfit might successfully maintain their middle tier credentials, they were well off the pace of contending for a title last year. They particularly struggled on offence, rounding out their campaign with five straight shut out losses, giving the dubious honour of being the most shutout team in the tier last year. Still, a crucial win over the Senators showed that when they’re in their stride, the Tigers can definitely compete this year.

What’s more, the Tigers will be somewhat relieved that their travel bill’s likely significantly reduced this year – the arrival of the Pirates and Roughnecks means the Tigers’ trips south of the wall have been halved!

Finally, for Aberdeen, this season represents an opportunity to establish themselves as one of the top programmes in Scotland – expect them to have thier fixtures versus Glasgow and EKP circled on their calendar, with the goal of riding the momentum from their undefeated 2018 campaign all the way to success this season. Despite topping out the NFC 2 North throughout the season, the Roughnecks never really got the credit they were due in the Power Rankings polls last year – but they righted those wrongs come the playoffs, hoisting the overall D2 Northern title with an overtime victory over the hotly-favoured Chester Romans. Can the Roughnecks realistically look to make it back to back titles, or will the step up in skills levels prove too much for the up-and-coming Scots outfit?

 

With Falcons promoted and the Jets folding, we see two new contenders in an NFC 1 South conference that could be set for some scorching scorelines this summer!

The Chester Romans enter the fray following a near-perfect promotion campaign – making it all the way through to overtime in the D2 Northern final before succumbing to their first defeat of 2018! Of course, whether they’ll be able to continue to find success in the middle tier is another matter entirely. Their offence looked unmatched through much of 2018, but a couple of blips, only putting up single digits against Halton during the regular season and Aberdeen in the finals, highlight that it’s far from unstoppable. How will they fare against some of the dangerously talented defences in this conference?

The Sandwell Steelers’ defensive unit allowed multiple scores in only three fixtures during the regular season, while their offence boasted its best numbers since their undefeated 2015 promotion campaign. They’ve got ability and experience across all positions, and can utilise their strong links with the Birmingham Lions Academy to keep a steady flow of young talent coming into the programme. As such, they’re seen by many as heirs apparent to the title.

…If only the sideways shift of the Lancashire Wolverines into the NFC 1 South hadn’t gone and made things a tad more complicated! Following relegation out of the Premiership at the end of 2017, where frustration had clearly gotten the better of the Wolverines at times and led to clear rifts within the team, expectations were 2018 was going to be a ‘rebuilding year’ for the Wolverines… Only, apparently they never got that memo! A cagey start to the season with a tie and a one-point loss were followed up with the offence finding a new gear – and suddenly the Wolverines were riding a seven game win streak, with potential to even swipe away the NFC 1 North crown if results elsewhere went their way!  As was, a season-closing shootout against the Vikings saw them forced to settle for second, and a postseason trip to Leicester did not go well for them. Will they face similar struggles against other NFC 1 South sides, or are Lancashire once against a legitimate contender for promotion?

Nor should you sleep on the Shropshire Revolution this season. They posted up a 6-4 record in their first campaign back in Division One, including pushing the Steelers to the wire in Week Three. They were one of the only teams outside the Premiership or Europe to send players to the European Championship with the GB Lions last summer, highlighting their defensive line as a unit to watch out for. Though they started 2018 with a cagey 6-0 win over the Ceasars, by the end of the year they were taking comfortable wins away from both the Caesars and the Mustangs, so will be coming into 2019 looking to at the very least match their winning record from last year, and ideally go one step further with some postseason balling.

And rounding out the northern half of the middle tier we have the Doncaster Mustangs and Nottingham Caesars – two programmes who had a lot to work on over the offseason after distinctly disappointing 2018 campaigns.  Both teams can boast a sprinkling of quality in key positions, but neither was really able to put all the pieces together when it really mattered in 2018. Heads dropped at both teams, and so too did numbers – by midseason the Mustangs, in particular, were travelling to away games with barely a mini-bus’ worth of players, and the Caesars were struggling with a transition from the old guard to a new regime – the appointment of Coach Vanden Warner to head up the coaching staff following the 2018 marks the start of a new era in Caesars’ history, his predecessor Coach Bosely having been a leading figure in Nottingham football for over three decades.

Nottingham can at least take confidence from their two wins over Doncaster last summer, but both teams know that with the folding of the Jets there’ll likely be no ‘soft’ games this season, and odds are Romans have set their sights on displacing one of these two teams in order to maintain their own position in the middle tier.

 

If you asked me to pick one conference across all three tiers that I think’s gonna get feisty in 2019 – well, I think it’s a close run thing between the SFC 1 Central and SFC 1 East… but the reshuffled Central conference takes it!

The simple fact is, of these six teams only ONE had a losing record in 2018, and barely: the Oxford Saints boast the ‘worst’ record of any of the teams coming into the conference with a 4-5-1 season – including a tied and 1-point loss to the Berkshire Renegades that could’ve easily gone Oxford’s way. The Saints braved a trip up to Leicester in the preseason, and certainly came away from the game learning a lot – and not just from the Houston Texan’s Deshaun Watson’s pre-game QB Clinic!

In truth, the only team that really proved to have their way with the Saints last season were the Sussex Thunder who took hefty wins over Oxford in both meetings in 2018 and following two-straight playoff seasons will be eager to keep themselves at the front of the race this year. The key to the Thunder’s success looks likely to be consistency on offence – when the Thunder offence founds its groove around midseason, they were turning heads, but a slow start to the year and an inability to put up points on the Thrashers ultimately cost Sussex their shot at back to back Central titles.

The Solent Thrashers swiped their first title since returning to the middle tier in 2018,  scheduling meaning they were able to secure the SFC 1 Central crown with more than a month of the season to play out. Their surprise defeat to the Renegades once the #1 seeding had already been locked up was the only blemish on an otherwise impressive campaign, and but for coming up 4pts short in the Monsoon Bowl against the Exiles, could well be playing top tier football this year!

Missing out on postseason football by half a game last season, the Berkshire Renegades were a tough team to get a grasp of last season. They opened up their first campaign back in the middle tier with a surprise win over the Thunder, and at the midpoint of their season were sitting pretty 3-1-1 record and looking a shoo-in for some postseason football. However, their first loss of the year to Solent in Week Seven seemed to knock the Renegades off course at the perfectly wrong time, as they faced a series of five-straight fixtures. They dropped two more games against teams they’d beaten comfortably earlier in the year, before finally getting back on track in Week Ten. They rounded out their season with three straight wins, wrapping up their regular season a month ahead of some middle tier outfits, but their midseason slump had left the door to the playoff ajar, and the Thunder took the opportunity to leapfrog them into the #2 spot in the table.  Should the Renegades solve their consistency issues? Don’t be surprised to see them right in the race for the crown.

Finally, rounding out this beast of a conference are the two newest additions to the southern half of Division One, as the top two teams out of the SFC 2 South bulldozed their way through the southern playoffs in 2018, before meeting for a third, high stakes clash, in the Southern title game! Both the Hertfordshire Cheetahs and Portsmouth Dreadnoughts looked a clear cut above the rest of the competition in D2 last season, each providing one another’s only real rivals for much of the regular season, and perhaps even more so come the playoffs!  It can be a tough transition between the bottom and middle tiers, and while we’re sure both teams will be pleased to be able to keep their superb rivalry going for another year, both will also know that there’s a fair chance if one or other of them can’t get up to speed with D1 football, and fast, they could well be headed right back down to D2 football come the summer’s close.

 

As noted above, the SFC 1 East is also set up to be an absolute doozy this year! Two of the three teams that were deadlocked with 7-3 records at the top of the table last season return for another tilt at the title, and the only team that didn’t have many obvious positives to take away from last year’s performances were Bury, who rejoin the middle tier after two Premiership campaigns.

The Bury Saints might be heading into a new season following a winless 2018 campaign, but the truth is the Premiership South can break the toughest of programmes, and the Saints suffered an ill-timed rift following their promotion to the top tier at the end of 2016. They did their best to patch the holes and stay afloat in the top tier, but last year, in particular they rapidly found themselves struggling with injuries and a lack of depth – leading to a controversial forfeit to the Warriors in Week Six. From there the Saints’ main priority was simply avoiding another forfeit that would see them booted down to associate status. With an offseason to rebuild and recover, the question is now whether the Saints will emulate the former Prem teams that have made the drop in previous years. Do they following in the footsteps of the Olympians and bounce right back into top tier balling? Or does the skid become a slide, a la the South Wales Warriors, who are only now recovering from the fallout from roster-depleting, disappointing, top tier campaigns in 2015 and 2016, that saw the Welsh outfit fall from Prem to D2 in the space of two seasons?

One thing that’s for certain is that this conference gets off to a fast start this year, as all six outfits see action in Week One!

The Wembley Stallions will be the first to put the Saints to the test, eager to prove they’re a better side than their 5-5 record implies. Indeed, the Stallions were an enigma of a team in 2018 – they took wins away from both the East’s eventual postseason contenders last summer, and were in many ways the main reason we ended up with such a head-scratching situation of three teams tied at seven wins-a-piece. They split their games with three of their four rivals last year, but it just goes to show that when they get their groove going, this is a team capable of besting any of their rivals.

Indeed, the only team to do the double over the Stallions last season were the Cambridgeshire Cats, who similarly put together a season that had our preds writers scratching their heads throughout the summer months. A season-opening win over the Exiles was followed by a loss to the Glads, and then a three-game win streak stalled with back-to-back losses in Weeks Ten and Eleven. United in the heartbreaking loss of one of their players, the Cats finished out the year on a high with three straight victories, though tiebreakers still saw them miss out on the postseason action they had fought tooth and nail for. It looks like they’ve put a lot of work into recruitment during the offseason – a good thing as they were getting thin on the ground particularly for away games last season – and if the Cats have their sights set on anything less than postseason action this year, they’re selling themselves short.

Cambridgeshire open their campaign with an away trip to the Colchester Gladiators, a team that may have been somewhat surprised to find themselves still playing D1 football last year, after finishing bottom of the table in 2016. However, the 2018 D1 expansion gave them new life, and they leapt at the opportunity, further contributing to the confusion that was the SFC 1 East last year by kicking off their campaign with a 2-0 start to the season! They proved they were still more than worthy of middle tier action, and the key to improving on their 4-6 record this year will be finding a way to maintain form down the stretch – they lost six of the final eight fixtures last year, and they can’t bank on there being a programme in peril like the East Kent Mavericks were in 2018.

That said, if you have to pick a weak link in this conference, odds are most eyes will turn to the Ouse Valley Eagles. Though they showed flashes of life in a pair of wins in 2018, it almost felt like the Eagles gave up on their campaign with a number of fixtures still on the slate. Head Coach Neale McMasters announced he would be stepping down before OVE had wrapped up the regular season, and they closed out the summer by handing the Division Two-bound Bristol Apache their first and only win of the season. Shifted sideways into the East ahead of this season, odds are life isn’t about to get any easier for the Eagles – it was this conference that sent a team to the Premiership last season – and therefore the new regime will have their work cut out for them in their new digs. Are the Eagles up to the task?

And the final team in the tier to take a look at are a London Hornets team that came oh-so-close to a first middle-tier title last year. Though they opened their year with a stumble against the Stallions, the Hornets quietly put together a 5-1 record going into the final portion of their season and placed themselves at the front of a packed race for the Eastern crown. Even so, they came up short against a Cats outfit they’d bested just a fortnight prior, and then put in a stinker of a performance in their away trip to the Exiles that looked like it might cost the Hornets playoff football entirely! However, their season closer saw the Hornets turn the tables on Kent, and come within a couple of points of actually swiping the crown via head to head – losing the combined scoreline 29-31 and allowing the Exiles the smoother route into the postseason. Kicking off their campaign with a trip to the Eagles, look for London to aim for a faster start to their 2019 campaign than they managed last year, and anything other than another title-contending season should be considered a step backwards for this promising young programme.

 

 

Comments

comments

Nick

Nick 'Willy Tee' Wilson-Town hails from the South West where he's spent the last decade bouncing around various teams at the university and senior level. He came to fame on the now departed unofficial forum thanks to his regularly irreverent Uniball predictions and general 'BUAFL wafflage'. Follow him on twitter @WillyTee1