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!
Over the past two days we’ve taken a quickfire trip around the bottom and middle tiers, and now we turn our attention to the pinnacle of the British game: The Premiership.
Due to illness, I’ve left these previews a lot later than originally intended, but given the potentially game-changing announcements out of BAFA this week… perhaps that isn’t a bad thing after all!
In fairness, the top tier has a relatively slow start to its action, at least compared to the other tiers, with only a single fixture taking place in Week One as newcomers to the Premiership North, the Leicester Falcons, play host to a team that’s likely on their list of candidate to displace out of the top tier this year – the Giants.
Yep, following an undefeated promotion campaign, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the Falcons ‘ build-up to their first season back in the top tier of the British game – but it seems not all of the attention was the good kind! Though it wasn’t specified as such, it was certainly strongly implied by BAFA that concerns raised by some of the Falcons’ new conference rivals were the catalyst that lead to this week’s mass suspension of Foreign National players, pending submission of evidence of insurance eligibility.
What does this mean for the Falcons’ chances in their first year in the tier? Well, depending how on the ball they are with admin, probably not as much as you think it might! Yes, it does indeed appear that Leicester will be unable to utilise the four Baker University scholars, products of their cross-Atlantic partnership with the Universities of Derby (UK) and Baker (US)… But that doesn’t mean they’re suddenly lacking for talent.
This is still the team that went 13-0-0 last season, and the reality is that a good amount of their supposedly ‘imported’ talent is absolutely still eligible to play, so long as they get their paperwork across to the registrations team in time. There was a time that teams struggled with the step up to Premiership football, but the recent promotees – the Merseyside Nighthawks, Edinburgh Wolves and Manchester Titans – have each proven more than up to the task – displacing existing top tier teams to establish themselves as elite northern programmes. Some seem to think the Falcon’s time in the Prem is over before its even begun… But that’s certainly not the approach they’re taking. Sunday’s clash with the Giants will allow us to learn an awful lot about the shape of the North this season!
Having discussed the elephant in the room, how about we talk about their upcoming opponents? The Sheffield Giants continue to be something of a conundrum in the Prem North – from one week to the next in the past two seasons it was impossible to predict whether the Giants were going to stumble to a couple of TDs, or set the scoreboard alight with an offensive master class! Sure, they were clearly off the pace of the Titans and Phoenix last season, but they split wins with both Merseyside and Edinburgh to keep the middle of the table hotly contested throughout 2018. It’s tough to think of them as playoff material following their 4-6-0 2018 campaign, but at the same time this is a dangerous outfit that when they have the wind at the backs has the ability to put up scores on anyone and given their form the last two years can almost be counted on to cause a couple of ‘upsets’ this season! (Are they really upsets if we’re expecting them?)
A team that’ll have similarly mixed feelings about their 2018 campaign are the Edinburgh Wolves. They were held below .500 for a second straight season since promotion, and despite finding themselves at 4-2 around midseason, rounded out their campaign with a four-game losing that will have the Scottish side frustrated by what might have been. Even so, they proved last year they were capable of keeping pace with the Titans – their two losses coming by 2 and 4 points respectively – and got the better of both Merseyside and Sheffield during the first half of the season. Should they be able to maintain their form down the stretch this year, playoffs are not beyond this outfit.
Oh, and as an added bonus, the Wolves came out on top in both their clashes with local rivals, EKP, establishing themselves as the team to beat, north of the wall!
Emphasising just how competitive this conference was last summer, the Merseyside Nighthawks were yet another team that were the odd-score here and there away from making it back-to-back postseason trips. Change ups during the previous offseason seemed to leave them a little off the pace as they started the year 0-3, but a nice win with a hail-mary against the Titans in Week Eight seemed to give them some confidence back and they rounded out their campaign with a four-game win streak that allowed them to leap into a respectable 3rd place finish. With their season not getting underway until Week Four we’ll have to wait a while before we know whether Merseyside manage a faster start to their campaign this year, though it won’t be for lack of coaching if that is the case – the Nighthawks’ Training Camp gets underway with an impressive roster of guest coaches from across the British game!
Matching the achievement of the Nighthawks’ first season in the top tier in 2016, the Manchester Titans impressed in their first Premiership campaign with a 7-3 season that saw them through to playoffs! So much for ‘worst team to make it to the Prem…’ as one oft-quoted social media user claimed the Titans might prove to be! Roll forward to this season and the flagship team of Britball’s biggest programme will be seeking to also repeat the Nighthawks other feat of back-to-back postseason trips in their first two seasons. They’ve had an active preseason hosting scrimmages with other outfits, and similarly to Merseyside will have a lot of opportunity to scout out their opponents ahead of getting their summer underway – not taking their first competitive snap until Week Four.
And finally, we round off our round-up of the North with a team, that at this point, doesn’t need much in the way of an introduction – the Tamworth Phoenix. Since joining the Premiership they’ve managed to continue to show year-on-year development, winning their first Nothern title in 2016, their first National title in 2017, and last season smashing all their own club records in terms of points scored and conceded in the Premiership- even if they did ultimately come up short in their second Britbowl appearance, outmuscled by the Warriors’ unstoppable run game. 2018 also saw Tamworth take their first shot at mixing it up in Europe, flying the flag for GB in the Northern European Football League… and much like the Warriors in the preceding season, you’ve got to wonder whether Coach Jason Scott and his staff look back with hindsight and muse how their 2018 domestic season might have been different without the extra wear and tear from euro-balling?
Either way, there’s few that won’t consider the Phoenix as clear frontrunners for a fourth-straight Northern title this year… Which also means they’ve got the biggest target on their backs in 2019. They’ll give off their campaign against the Giants in Week Two, but this weekend sees the Phoenix roster attend their residential training camp with two packed days of preparation for 2019.
And finally, we come to the forge of champions, the Premiership South!
Yep, outside what some might claim was an anomaly in 2017, the Premiership South has now produced the Britbowl Championship winners for almost a full decade, as the top London programmes almost seemed intent on making it a tradition that they’d round out the summer with a clash for the title.
Still, the rise of the Phoenix in the North has shaken things up, with direct repercussions for the Southern side of the divide, too – With the Phoenix’s boasting a rather loud #Phamily of phans, few teams would be confident making the trip north for a semi-finals clash any longer, so whereas before the priority was simply to book a place in the postseason, now teams are all-too-aware that it’s all about locking up that southern title, and the home berth that comes with it.
Now, let’s get it out of the way right out of the gate:
The London Warriors were the best team in the country last year, and by some fair margin. Freed from distractions of European action, and eager to re-establish their place atop the British game, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they seemed to have some teams running scared, with two of last year’s rivals opting to bow out of their contests with the Warriors rather than take a demoralising drubbing. They posted up Fifty Burgers in all but two of their regular season fixtures, Mercy Clocks in all but one, and came close to dropping a Burger on Tamworth in the final, too as Dwayne Watson and Raymond Sobwale ran rampant over the Phoenix defence – and supposedly they had another equally talented running back out with injury, too!
Not participating in the NEFL this summer, the Warriors sights are set firmly on continuing resuming their reign above the rest of the British game. They made short work of the visiting Uppsala 86ers in the preseason, and not that they lacked for talent anyhow, but it appears Jerome Allen has returned under centre for the defending champs. Oh, and their new kit includes matte black lids.
Obviously, for the sake of the sport, the hopes every season are for each league to be as competitive as possible, and if there’s any team that stands a chance of making the Prem South interesting this year, it is of course the London Blitz. Though they’ve been somewhat eclipsed by the success of the Warriors in recent seasons, this is still one of the Nation’s top football programmes – their U19s earning a second-straight National Championship last summer! They’ll come into 2019 with a point to prove: 2018 ended a twelve-year streak of National Final appearances for the Blitz, and their regular-season closing loss to the Warriors, a 51-8 curb-stomping, will have left a mark on the teams pride that they’re eager to erase.
Beyond these two titans of the south? Well, recent history would seem to imply the rest of the Prem South is left fighting for scraps. With the playoff brackets reduced to two in recent seasons, most years we see a battle between the remaining southern outfits for the #3 spot in the south. Will we see anything different this year?
Well, it’d certainly be a big ask.
Newcomers, the Kent Exiles turned heads in their 2018 campaign – overcoming regular season slip-ups to put together a tidy postseason campaign that included taking a hotly-favoured Leicester Falcons side right down to the wire in the D1 Final. They’re a talented team, with a superb development structure, but there’s no doubt this will be the Exiles toughest test to date, and until they prove otherwise they’re probably coming into every game as distinct underdogs.
Still, the same could’ve easily been said about the London Olympians last year, and it didn’t work out too badly for them! Sure, they weren’t able to keep pace with the two big London outfits, but their 5-5 season, including a decisive 35-10 win over the Aztecs, meant that just a season separated from being unceremoniously dumped out of the top tier without a win in 2016, the Olympians secured themselves the coveted #3 spot in the south last season! They’ve look to have returned most of their roster this year, including BUCS D1 Championship MVP running-back Andrew Owusu, and should be aiming to maintain their standing in the South, ideally enhancing it with a winning record in 2019.
However, a team that’s likely to have something to say about the Olympians setting up roost as the Prem South’s number three outfit are the Bristol Aztecs, who’d held a vice-like grip on the podium position since the Premierships were re-established. It all seemed to be going to plan for the ‘Tecs through the first half of the season, but when they travelled light to the Os in Week Thirteen, a hefty loss allowed the Olympians to poach the head-to-head, meaning the South West side have some ground to make up this year! The Aztecs have continued to build on their strong links with local teams via the Bristol Academy of American Football, including the outstanding Filton Pride programme, and the UWE Bullets who had a highly successful 2018/19 BUCS campaign in the first year in the top tier. They kick off their campaign with a trial-by-fire against the Blitz in Week Two.
And last but by no means least, the Farnham Knights return for another attempt at climbing higher up the Britball ladder after a disappointing 2018 campaign that saw them secure only two victories last summer – over the relegation-bound Bury Saints. Though they courted controversy with their brazen ‘tactical forfeit’ announcement ahead of their Week Thirteen walkover loss to the Warriors, it’s also fair to say the 2-8-0 record doesn’t necessarily reflect the season the Knights were able to put together. Despite some key veterans being unavailable and a roster stacked with less experienced players than you’d typically see in the top tier, the Knights consistently found ways to get on the scoreboard throughout the season, even against the top London outfits. Both their fixtures against the third-place finishing Olympians were hardfought contests with small margins of victory, and so with a more mature, experience, and hopefully bolstered roster for 2019, the rebranded Knights should be aiming to at the very least put themselves back in the race for the #3 spot in the south, too.