Cornish Sharks @ Bristol Apache
It’s a bit of a bizarre situation in the second division at present. There are eight playoff spots in each half of the tier. The Northerners have sealed up six of their available eight spots, with only the two third place berths waiting to be locked down.
Down in the sunnier conferences however those lazy Southerners have only gotten so far as sorting out three of their eight spots, and even then they’ve only handed out two of the conference crowns!
It all comes down to this weekend’s games…
Who are they?
Which is why we’re headed to the Westcountry for this weekend’s Game of the Week choice!
Not only does this rivalry matchup between the Cornish Sharks and the Bristol Apache have huge ramifications within the SFC II West itself, this game is also the key to resolving the southern conference seedings.
While there’s so many different potential playoff-fixture-impacting outcomes from the remaining six matches taking place this weekend as to make you go cross-eyed, the reality is there is only one southern team who can make it to the postseason who wouldn’t have a berth if the season ended right before any of these matches were played. The Cornish Sharks.
It’s certainly been an interesting season for the #BritballNation’s most southerly football programme, who saw playoff football last season. They’ve proven themselves a cut above the majority of their conference with sizeable margins of victory over the likes of the Raptors, Storm and their closest rivals, the Torbay Trojans.
However, the currently undefeated Oxford Saints have proven to have far too much firepower for the Sharks, blowing them out of the water with both home and away multi-score wins. Their closest contender performance wise this season has therefore been with their longstanding conference rivals – the Bristol Apache.
These two programmes have met ten times since the Apache entered the league in 2011 – with the only programme the Cornish have faced more times being the currently-MIA Gloucester Centurions (which possibly explains why so many ex-Centurions find themselves on the Sharks’ away day roster).
Bristol lead this rivalry 6-4, with the Sharks dominating the early portion of the series, while Bristol have now won six meetings on the trot, meaning the team from Cornwall having not defeated the Apache since 2012 (though three of these losses were by a score or less).
The reason this game holds such sway over the Southern division as a whole is that a Sharks win at the weekend will most likely mean there are five teams across the three divisions with a 7-3 record. While two of these would secure their spot into the postseason by virtue of a #2 spot in their respective conferences, this would still leave three third place teams with 7-3 records that would then be ranked via their defensive PAPG, with one programme missing out on playoff balling. Who that would be? Right now it’s really too close to have a clue.
When last they met…
Bristol headed down to deepest darkest Cornwall and came away with the narrowest of victories.
The Sharks, partly due to Cornwall’s out-of-the-way positioning and strongly seasonal economy that make it more difficult for the full roster to travel the long distances to away fixtures, means the Sharks have traditionally been at their strongest in their home waters.
The Cornish defence stepped up big and held the Apache to their lowest offensive output of the season – a mere 13 points, despite the Bristol team coming into the fixture averaging 33 ppg. However, the Sharks’ own offence was similarly blunted, putting in their only single-score performance of the season and giving Bristol a 6 point head to head lead ahead of this season-ending match up.
What to watch out for:
- The Apache tribe have been building momentum on offence as offensive coordinator Simon Stadden continues to grow in confidence in his first year in the role. The Bristolians notched up their first fifty burger of the season against the Raptors in Week 15 and will be coming into this fixture refreshed after a pair of bye weeks.
- Running Back Jon Walters has been the #Tribe’s number one threat on offence, leading the team with 16 trips to the end zone so far this season. The o-line has ex-prem talent across the board, including James Kittle III and Lydon Ward-Best – you’ll recognise the journeyman offensive lineman as the one stood next to the holding flag every few plays.
- Their offence has also been showing greater ability through the air despite injuries under centre plaguing them at points this season, with wideouts Christ Taylor and Kev Shelbourn being the pass-catchers most familiar with the endzone.
- A rarity in Senior league, Player-Head Coach Adam Davies heads up the defence from middle linebacker, partnered with Dariusz Wiercioch – recently returned from a four year stint of Prem-balling with the Bristol Aztecs.
- Look out for the entire defensive line to give the Sharks problems – dominating the battle in the trenches when these two teams met in Week Nine – while Franco Gambioli is the one to watch in the Apache secondary.
- The Sharks rely on a strong ground game, with an effective stable of backs headed up Shaun Griffin – who broke a thousand yards on the season so far as the Sharks dominated against Torbay last weekend. He is complimented by the blocking of Adam ‘AK-47’ Kevern and recently discovered nose-for-the-endzone of Mark Womble (Eds: We believe this to be a delayed outcome of the sterling coaching he received early in his career!)
- The Sharks were boosted this season by a batch of Academy grads – buffing the roster across the breadth of the field including wideout Ben Jenkins and offensive linemen Ben Girling and Cadan Brown.
- Defensive Tackle Lewis ‘The Postman’ Bowns (because he always delivers) is proving the danger man on defence, racking up 18 sacks so far this year, ably supported by defensive ends Samu Taukai and Oliver Hamer. Also, keep an eye out for old man Running Back turned Lineback Richard Howlett, who really shouldn’t be playing so well considering his advanced years.
- Lee Ambridge leads a secondary stocked with experienced Uniballers.
What do they have to say about one another?
James Talbot – General Manager, Bristol Apache:
“We have encountered the Sharks every year since Apache entered the league and it is always a tough game, in spite of the run of results we have against them. We know they are going to be hungry to win as it is their only route into the playoffs.
We know they have some talent at safety that we will have to watch out for, and the D will need to be on alert to stifle their run game.”
Brian Smallworth – Head Coach, Cornish Sharks:
“We know Bristol and their personnel very well and we know it will be a tough game.
It will be a game of positional match ups and the team that makes the least mistakes or gives away the least penalties will win.
Bristol will always have the numbers over us but the Sharks are a tough team to play especially if we have the right personnel and they come with their game heads on.”
And what do we think?
First things first, what we’d like to see happen:
Sharks win, but only something like 18-15. This means Bristol maintain the head to head, hold onto the #2 spot, and their low PAPG isn’t taken into the likely three-way tie between third placers.
Meanwhile, the likes of Wembley and EKM are forced to have stress-ulcers as they attempt to keep their PAPG as low as possible to squeeze their own (potential) 7-3 records into playoffs. It’ll be calculators at dawn people!
But what will happen? Mathematically Bristol still need a win to guarantee playoffs, despite their currently #1 ranked defence in the conference. As such they’ll be almost as eager to secure the win as the Sharks – who HAVE to win to have a chance at a postseason berth.
Bristol probably have both the larger and more talented roster, and the Sharks will be reliant on the right personnel managing to make the trip north…
Bristol by a score and the rest of the South breathes a sigh of relief.
Bristol Apache 20-14 Cornish Sharks