This weekend the GB Lions U19s face their biggest challenge since the team’s revival, taking on the Norwegian U19’s National Team for a place in the IFAF European Championships this summer!
With so much at stake, DC took the opportunity to talk with Lions Head Coach, Neale McMaster, who stepped up into the role following the unexpected departure of Coach Jason Henry in February:
DC: Coach, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First up, congratulations on stepping up into your new role – how are you finding it? You’ve been a Head Coach before, but how does coaching at the international level differ?
NM: Thank you, I know it sounds cheesy but it is a genuine honour to do this, and something I’ve dreamed of.
International level is pretty different. For a start, we’re obviously working with some of the best athletes in the UK, which is a total luxury, and we don’t have any issues with numbers or any of the normal challenges that club coaches have week to week. We get an opportunity to treat it much more like a college team in the states in terms of our preparation for both camps and the games.
I’m incredibly grateful now for the time I spent with the GB Adult team prepping for the Group B tournament in Worcester a few years ago, that time has really helped prepare me for this level of coaching.
DC: To talk about the elephant in the room, 2019 has already been a pretty tumultuous year for the newly revived Lions U19’s roster with a number of departures from the coaching staff including your predecessor Coach Jason Henry – how do you feel the players and rest of the staff are handling the changes? Have BAFA and the rest of the GB Lions programme been able to provide support to yourself and the fledging U19s team?
NM: Yeah, it’s definitely not the start anyone had imagined, that’s for sure. I think we’ve done a great job of focusing on the things we can control, and not really worrying about that stuff, as we can’t do anything about it. BAFA made the decision, and we have to move on and do our job, which is focusing on Norway, and doing the best we can there.
The players and staff have really rallied together and supported me and really got behind the message. This is still early days for the programme, I don’t think we’ve 100% got the methodology nailed down to be the best it can be, but we are working hard to improve everything we do, which will ultimately improve the product on the field.
BAFA are fully behind us and want to see this programme succeed. The support off the field has been awesome. Again, this is something that will get better as we progress and work together more, as I think I have a much more hands-on style, but everyone is out to try and provide the best possible opportunity for the players, and focus on winning games.
DC: The Lions have taken to the field twice now, with tough matchups against Holland and a trip across to France. Though the results haven’t gone your way, what have you, and also the players, been able to take away from these games?
NM: Yeah, I think if we had played France first, then Holland, we would have been a lot more competitive in the Dutch game. The Dutch game was our first trip away, and we got caught up in the first weekend of the yellow jacket protests in France, which meant we didn’t arrive at the ground until 30 mins before being announced onto the field, so it was all very rushed, and I think that showed in our first half performance.
The French Pole Revolution was a very different story. They had practiced more that week than we had since we started, so it was always going to be a struggle. What I have seen is a group of young men really bond in these two trips and grow as athletes and people. I understand people externally just see the results, and assume what’s going on, but it couldn’t be further from what we’ve seen. For a lot of our players, their last competitive league game was a 5v5 tournament, and now they are out there playing against the best Europe has to offer. That’s a massive hurdle to overcome, and you cannot underestimate just how big a gap it is from 5 on 5 to 11 on 11 football, and then to come up the European level, it’s a huge change.
We continue to work on ourselves, developing with every single rep we do. We are teaching the players a practical way to improve themselves at every practice, and a way of getting better constantly. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see that improvement against Norway.
DC: The Lions are taking on Norway on home soil – do you think this will be a factor come Saturday? How can the Britball community help buoy your chances of success this weekend?
NM: I think it’ll be a huge advantage for us to play in front of a home crowd. I’m really hoping the Britball community can get behind us and show their support.
We’ve had a lot of support on our travels, but obviously not everyone can be there as it’s a way to travel, so for a lot of players, this will be the first time they’ll be playing in front of their families in the GB colours, which will obviously be a very proud moment for them.
We hope to utilise that excitement and the home support to give us that extra little boost when we need it.
DC: And looking to Norway, what can you tell us about them? How has preparation for the game gone, and is there anything, in particular, you’ve been telling your young ballers they need to watch out for from the Norwegians this weekend?
NM: I think they are the closest team to us in terms of leagues and how they do things. They have a 9 on 9 home league like us, and they have only been going for around a year too. They played is last years U19 Nordic Championships which was their first competitive game since 1998 I believe. They lost to Sweden in the first game, but came back and beat Norway a week later in the second in what looks like it was a great game.
They are a big team. I think their strength is their DL for definite, those are some big, fast guys who we will really need to focus on. Offensively, they have a simple plan that they execute well.
However, we’ve had the best prep we’ve had for any game. Due to holidays and Victor dropping out before the France game, we’ve worked closely with the Adult team to get our game plan as good as we can. Mike Callan has come in to help us out at Defensive Coordinator for the game, as Scott Rowe is on holiday, and Mike has brought that energy he has and really enthused the D players and staff.
If we can go out, and execute our gameplan, with the crowd on our side, and the prep we’ve had, I think we’re putting ourselves in the best possible position to get a positive result and qualify for the tournament.
DC: – And finally, the U19s programme was only revived a few months ago, but Saturday is an opportunity to secure a place in the IFAF European Championships later this year. What would it mean to the Lions to get themselves a win this weekend?
NM: It’d be absolutely huge. Playing in a tournament against the best in Europe is one of our goals as a programme, but in order to get there we need to focus on Norway. I know its the boring platitudes, but we need to focus on this game and just do our jobs. How we adjust in this game will be key, and we have everything set up to do just that. The Championships is a dream for us, and beating Norway gets us there. These young Lions are desperate to get their first win in the programme, and if we do everything right, we remain hopeful that it’ll be this weekend.
DC: Thanks for talking with us Coach and best of luck on Saturday!