The NFC1 North gets heated this week as defending conference champions, the Northumberland Vikings, host the East Kilbride Pirates in the first meeting of these two northern powerhouses.
The Vikings are currently top of the conference and will be hoping to cement their position with a win over the Pirates who can trade places should they pull off the victory.
Both teams enter this week boasting an undefeated record, with offences that have proven their ability to stack up healthy scorelines so far this season. As the two emerging contenders for the NFC 1 North crown, a win here for either team would mean another step towards securing the conference title.
Vikings to stay top dog?
This week’s fixture will be the biggest test yet for Northumberland, who will be assured considering their recent performances, including a 63-0 win over Gateshead, but this is a fresh challenge.
“The players and coaches share the view that we haven’t played to our full potential in any of our first five games,” said Head Coach Kevin O’Reagan,
“But we’ve done enough to win, which in itself is an indicator of the true potential of this team. Sunday will be our sternest test of the season and it’s time to step it up a gear.”
Coach O’Reagan is confident in his players’ ability, and that they have what it takes to bring home the win.
“We are blessed with talent on all three sides of the ball and I am very fortunate as a Head Coach to have players of this calibre at my disposal.”
The scale of the fixture is clearly not lost on Coach O’Reagan, who has felt the increase in competition across the conference.
“This game is huge for the future of the Vikings and what we are trying to accomplish as a club,” O’Reagan said,
“I believe the NFC1 North is stronger this year than last with the emergence of Aberdeen and the improvements on and off the field made by Yorkshire and Glasgow.
There’s a lot of football left to play and yes this game is hugely important, but nothing is decided at this point of the season, nor will it be after this game, regardless of the result.
We need to execute our game plan and play disciplined, mistake-free football. I expect the Pirates to be a physical, well-drilled unit, capable of putting up a big score if we don’t shut them down.”
On offence, the Vikings boast talent in both the ground and air game. Though Quarterback Richie Howe is still somewhat finding his feet as a starting Quarterback having stepped up into the role ahead of 2019, the Vikings boast veteran talent at wideout and running back.
Johnny Mbuyi has returned in his role as the workhorse running back, ably supported by Tega Diegbe who came into his own with some big scores in the Vikings’ dominating 63-0 win over the Senators. In the receiving corps, the Vikings are spoilt for talent with feisty slot receiver Jordan Matthews finding ways rack up YAC, with speedster Jacob Shotton providing the deep threat alongside a wealth of depth at the position. Should Howe continue to build rapport with his receiving corps, expect the Viking passing game to continue to become more proficient as the season goes on.
Defensively, the Vikings have shown no weak spots to far. They’ve only allowed three touchdowns on the season so far, and just a single multi-score game, way back in Week Two.
Pirates player development paying dividends
Having stepped up into the role part way through last summer’s disappointing Premiership campaign, at the end of the 2018 season Head Coach Jamie McLaughlin put an emphasis on the development of the Pirates’ younger players as a means of the longtime northern powerhouse returning to the Premiership.
East Kilbride are regarded as having one of the best youth and junior setups in the country, and their emphasis on that is paying dividends this season as players who’ve spent the last few seasons bolstering the Pirates’ trophy cabinet with silverware and finalists medals have stepped up to the adult roster.
The Pirates have put up three 45-plus scores in their last three games, while not conceding more than two touchdowns per game so far this season.
“The guys are all working hard and we’re not doing a whole lot different from the end of last season,” McLaughlin said,
“The difference is just a lot of work over the off-season and pre-season and accountability from everybody, players and coaches alike, to make themselves and the team better.”
The team has benefited from improvement across the board, and while Coach McLaughlin didn’t tip any particular players greatness this weekend, it’s impossible to miss the number of times former U19s standouts names are appearing in match reports lately. Veteran QB Neil Baptie has an incredibly talented backup in the form of Sam Montgomerie, the latter getting a wealth of playtime against the Senators last Sunday. He’s maintained his connection with wideout Struan Bailey in particular, and you just have to look at the Pirates roster to see that close to a third of their current roster are graduates from their outstanding player development scheme.
“We’ve had a lot of input from a lot of guys over the past few games – but we’ve had quite a different focus in each, so it’ll be most likely to depend on what we’re able to take advantage of and how our execution is on the day.” McLaughlin continued,
“[We need to] stick to all the things we’ve been doing or trying to do since the latter half of last year. At the stage we’re at, execution and effort are the only things we really need to control on gameday. The rest of the work went in from last August until now. Hopefully, that shows up.”
Both teams find themselves in good form ahead of this game, though it’s worth noting that while the Vikings have had a couple of close run-ins with the Tigers, and especially the Rams, the Pirates have perhaps had the more consistently comfortable ride up to this point of their campaign.
Both outfits boast resilient defences, but then neither has likely faced an offence of the calibre they’ll square off against this Sunday, and as such I’m going to give East Kilbride the edge here, on account of their more consistent ability to post up blowout scorelines.
Pirates to win, but this should still be the best match up of the NFC 1 North’s 2019 season so far so make sure you check out the UKAFL live stream of the game, brought to you by Vikings TV!