The curtain comes down on the 2016/17 university season on Sunday afternoon with the BUCS Premier Division Final, which pits Stirling Clansmen against Durham Saints for the honour of being crowned national champions.
For Durham, the trip to the biggest game in the Uniball calendar represents just how far they have come in a few short years, with university investment transforming from whipping boys to bona fide contenders on a yearly basis.
For Stirling, well, they’d be forgiven for thinking this is same old, same old. The Clansmen have reached the last four National Championship games, usually clashing with southern powerhouses Birmingham. This year, however, has seen a northern revolution – with all four Premier South sides falling at the first hurdle in the post-season – and the possibility of a first new name on the Neil Reynolds Trophy since Portsmouth Destroyers won it all six seasons ago.
There is, of course, a huge elephant in the room when it comes to the Saints’ status in the final. After finishing the regular season with a perfect 8-0 record on the field, BUCS’ ruling that Durham had unintentionally fielded an ineligible player – scholarship quarterback Dom Bona – for five of those games resulted in “involuntary walkovers”.
All of that meant that the Saints entered the play-offs as Premier North’s #4 seed with a 3-5 record, giving them a theoretically tougher route to the big dance.
That didn’t seem to matter to the Saints, however, who disposed of Premier South’s #1 seed, the Hertfordshire Hurricanes, before downing the Loughborough Students in the semis to reach their first National Championship game.
For Stirling – now #1 seed – an easy 33-0 post-season opener against Bath Killer Bees was followed by a much closer semi-final against the enigmatic Derby Braves, with the Clan eventually prevailing 27-21.
Ones to watch
Ignoring the off-field issues that took the Saints’ record to 3-5, Durham were the standout team in this season’s Premier North. Handling the loss of their QB1 seamlessly, they leaned on the all-round athletic ability of Matt Brigham – who also represents the university at lacrosse – in their most recent encounter against this weekend’s opponents. Making his first start at quarterback, Brigham accounted for 272 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns to see the Saints through to the end of the season without an on-field loss.
A big part of the success of Durham’s air game has been the receivers at their signal-caller’s disposal, with Chaz Dawson standing head and shoulders above the rest -the scholar racked up 12 regular season touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, so much goes through Dan Yeargin. The Saint’s mike ‘backer is the lynchpin that will be key to holding back the Stirling offence, and he’s got a penchant for the big play – his pick six sealed the game for the Saints against Hertfordshire in the Saints’ opening postseason trip – points from the dark side of the football will likely be crucial in the final.
The Clansmen have arguably the more rounded roster of the two finalists, but they still have a smattering of game-changers that can make a huge splash on Sunday.
Thomas Campbell – a star turn in the Clansmen’s last championship win in 2015 – continues the fine tradition of Stirling playmakers that can play at running back and receiver, and was front and centre of their offence in the semi-final win over Derby.
On the defensive side of the ball, Arnold Masayila – veteran of all four of Stirling’s trips to the final – provides the Clansmen with some muscle in the middle, but all eyes will be on ball-hawking safety Ash Hopkinson, who has averaged over a pick per game on the Green Gang’s road to the National Championship.
Most who have watched the Premier Division’s northern games this year are of the opinion that the Saints should have too much firepower for the Clansmen, but we are loathe to dismiss a team with the Clansmen’s title heritage.
The Saints, however, hold the advantage in terms of momentum – if not statistics – with two on-field wins over the Clan in the regular season, the most recent coming in Week 12 by a 14-12 scoreline. However, Stirling’s starting quarterback Donat Garcia didn’t play in either of the side’s meetings this season – his first crack at Durham’s defence may make or break this one.
There will be no blow-out based on big game experience here – with Durham’s cast of former college and high school stars negating Stirling’s four straight finals – so this correspondent is plumping for a very narrow Durham victory.
Not heading to Sixways for the big game? Catch all the action on our live coverage of finals day, kicking off at 12 noon with Leeds Beckett Carnegie against Portsmouth Destroyers, followed at 4pm by Stirling Clansmen against Durham Saints.
Unlike Tom, the rest of #TeamDC haven’t had a whole year of tracking the Prem North’s ebb and flow of strengths and weaknesses, so how will our fifteen pundits pick with their quasi-educated best guesses?