John Hill of the superb Britball flag website 'Pulling the Flag' shares a wrap up of the 2016 season with DC, most of whom haven't yet had the sense to give up on breaking their bodies through contact football just yet.
The flag season ended in high drama, but this sport-on-the-rise will be mulling over some important questions in the offseason…
Some finals end in stalemate and disappointment. Not this year.
With just over two minutes to go, the 12–1 Glasgow Hornets had a 14–13 lead, and were driving into London Rebels territory. And then Bill Ammons happened.
While the Hornets drove downfield for a touchdown in the waning seconds, an incomplete extra point gave the Rebels a 21–20 victory, and their first BritBowl since 2013. It was a blow for the Hornets, who’d slammed through the HNC North by scoring 743 points in 13 games. But Northern teams now haven’t beaten their Southern counterparts since 2012, when the legendary Kirkcaldy Bulls were still in town. The Rebels ended their own season unbeaten, following a 13–0 run in the SEC South.
In many ways, 2016 was yet another positive season for flag. The number of teams participating grew once again. There’s a new figurehead at GB level in Alan Young, and a few more official and unofficial tournaments (Hi, Outlaw League) to keep the action flowing almost year-round. What’s more, BAFA’s decision to move the finals from Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium to Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park was widely considered a success. But there will undoubtedly be conversations about flag’s other burning topics in the winter break.
It was the first year of BAFA’s expanded playoffs, with three teams progressing from each division instead of two. While it kept more teams interested late into the season, it’ll take time to judge whether it’s giving more teams a chance to shine…or inviting potential blowouts in the knock-out stages (NOTE: Six sides qualified from Scotland this year, in a conference of just 10 teams).
Once again, forfeits became an issue. The Westcliff Storm failed to start the season, and were joined by the Woodham Warriors, Doncaster Mustangs, London Barracuda and Bishop’s Stortford HighFlyers before the year was out. Pulling the Flag’s much-feared “Chicken of Judgement” made a whole load of appearances, with several teams forfeiting gamedays. Last year’s champion Birmingham Lions found themselves disqualified from the playoffs after missing two events, opening up a spot for the 5–10–1 Coventry Cougars. It’s raised the question of whether more checks need to be applied to incoming teams, and some have asked whether a tiered system is the future of flag.
But enough of the downers. Onto the action.
In Scotland, two teams shone right from the off. The Aberdeen Oilcats and Glasgow Hornets split their series this season, and stormed through the remainder of their schedule. Boasting GB talents such as Gary Elliott and Calum Young, the Oilcats went as far as the semi final this year, and finished third for the second year out of three. In the other division, the Grangemouth Broncos were the class of the division, but fell to the Hornets in the Northern Playoffs.
The Oilcats’ route to Britbowl went through two champions from the MEC. First they whipped past the 14–2 Newcastle Blackhawks, who had enjoyed their return to the Mid-England Conference after two years in Scotland. Next they faced a 16–0 Sheffield Predators side that looked solid bets for a finals appearance on their home turf. But after Michael Scott hauled in a TD to put Aberdeen ahead, the Oilcats D stood firm to break up a fourth down hail mary as time expired.
The fourth Britbowl participant was something of a surprise. Battle-hardened from years in the competitive SEC South (and a couple of trips to the European festival of top-quality flag that is Big Bowl), the Victoria Park Panthers beat the Northants Titans Blue team after SEVEN OVERTIMES to claim the last spot in the finals. And that’s after being two scores down with less than two minutes to go. The Panthers went 10–2–1 over the season, claiming the SEC North.
In the SWC North, it was all about the re-vitalised Northants Phantoms…until it wasn’t. The 12–3–1 Phantoms were transformed from 2015’s 2–9–1 outfit (and we still have no idea how). They topped their division for huge chunks of the season before being unseated at the death by their city rivals, the Titans. The 2014 champion Cardiff Hurricanes returned to the playoffs as SWC South champions after a season-long tussle with the rookie Hereford Stampede, but both teams made early exits from the knockouts at the hands of Aylesbury and West Essex.
2016 had its share of popcorn-worthy moments. The rise of the Phantoms was exhilarating, and we saw teams like the Victoria Park Panthers, Manchester Crows and Northants Titans Blue take big steps. We also saw the emergence of several rookie sides that already look like keepers in the UK league. The tricky Hereford Stampede made the playoffs with a 10–6 record, while the Cheshire Cavaliers laid the foundations for a solid and well-run franchise (despite finishing 4–12).
At international level, the side finished ninth at the World Championships in Miami, matching their ranking from 2014. The Lions’ own Matt Wilkinson was named as part of the All-Tournament team. GB also debuted a development side known as the Silver Lions, who finished second at an international tournament in Ireland.
As we head into the women’s Opal Series tournament in late-October, flag seems more settled than it did a couple of years ago. Back then, there was excitement about growing numbers and more recognition. Now there’s a sense that there’s something worth protecting, and an enthusiasm for sitting down and building something that lasts.