In the lead up to the 2016 season the Oxford Saints received their first international transfer in over five years, Laurent Antoine who played Tight End for Les Dauphins de Nice (Nice Dolphins), a semi-professional team competing in the French top tier. He arrived with a belief in hard work, an ethic that found many like minded individuals amongst the Saints.
The Saints had experimented with unofficial midweek training sessions in 2015 with varying degrees of attendance, but Laurent helped to make them become a regularly attended event for many Saints. Anyone who followed the Oxford Saints through their 2016 campaign can attest that this paid dividends, as they would finish the season SFC II champions and proud owners of a perfect record, 13 wins (1 being a forfeit by the Torbay Trojans) and no defeats.
After such an impressive season you’d think that the boys from Oxford would be excited to take some time off, but only 3 weeks after the season had ended there was a core group back out on the field every week running drills. Their drive to continuously improve had brought them together, and it ended up taking them on a fairly unique journey.
Through the connections that Laurent still has with the Nice Dolphins, what had originally been intended as a holiday for some winter sun in the French Riviera and maybe tossing a ball around with the Dolphins QB, meant this group of Oxford Saints were invited to attend one of the training camps whilst they were in the area.
Obviously they jumped at the chance, it’s not every day that anyone in the Britball community gets the opportunity to train in a semi-pro setting. Many of us have at least contemplated what it would be like to be paid to play football and now this group of saints would be able to experience that level of the game themselves. On a cold November morning Laurent Antoine (WR), Sam Armstrong (TE), Richard Bloomer (TE), Ben Denton (QB), Sam Fielden (K/WR), Dave McCormack (WR), Kyle Swann (QB), James Walter (RB), Jason Williams (WR), and George Wright (DE) made their way to the sunny south of France for their first taste of a European American Football mini-camp.
Some of the boys who made the trip were willing to share some their experiences with DC:-
So what was the format of the mini camp?
“Started with a big team meeting then broke into O and D meetings. In the O room the OC would ask players to come up to the whiteboard and draw out the responsibilities of every player on the field, not just their position.” – Ben Denton
“Then we moved on to unit drills after warm up. Unit drills consisted of some brief ladder and hurdle stuff, then onto stances and the first 3 steps. Then onto routes with the QBs then onto pass skelly against DBs in zone coverage.” – Sam Armstrong
“We then had a small break. Came back for more individual work. And then finishing with a game, real focus on high reps and going 100%. Coaching happened 1:1 to not slow down” – Richard Bloomer
What were your initial impressions of the team and set-up?
“My first thought was these guys are tiny. But with tiny comes blistering speed” – Richard Bloomer
“The setup was great. Very nice facilities and equipment, lots of coaches, high attendance. Everyone took what they were doing seriously and there was no pissing around.” – George Wright
“My initial impression was that they were very dialed in, everyone turned up ready to listen, learn, and practice.” – Sam Fielden
“The team were well organised and professional with great facilities and all players appearing to buy into the programme. For example, in the team meetings nobody took their eyes of the coach/whoever was speaking” – James Walter
What would you say the biggest difference was?
“The biggest difference apart from the obvious (resources/level) was the volume and intensity of work done at practice, we worked hard and consistently for much longer than we’re used to.” – George Wright
“Main difference was intensity. We didn’t stop at any point. They run, throw, catch at 100% then they come off. Everyone was playing good football.” – Richard Bloomer
“The funding. It was clear that they were able to afford multiple kits and all the equipment they need without having to raise the funds we do. But the British game is a long way away from this level of finances.” – Ben Denton
“Number 1 the amount of coaches and all the equipment they had. Had plenty of people running kit to and from coaches as and when they needed it. Number 2 would be although the standard was obviously better, though not an incredible amount, they were all a lot fitter! A huge thing was that during the warm up, instead of doing 1 lap… they did 2!?!?! Madness!!” – Sam Armstrong
Did going on the trip change the way you would play?
“Any chance to get more coaching or learn off other players always effects how you play the position. Nice have a slightly less smash mouth approach to running the ball, meaning that I had to work on making the correct reads. Which should have carry over” – James Walter
“It definitely changed the way I play. Made me think about the smaller movements I make. The individual steps, just honing what I already knew. But also to stop being lazy during routes and running 100% all the time!” – Sam Armstrong
“I found a lot of the little tweaks to technique useful but the biggest thing I changed was the way I approach football, seeing them made me pay more attention to the little things – Off field study, diet, consistency in the weight room” – George Wright
“Not massively, it did impress on me the importance of footwork drills however” – Ben Denton
Most memorable part of the experience?
“Nothing in particular, it was all amazing” – Sam Fielden
“15 or so of us crammed around a small table in a local traditional restaurant toasting with pastis” – George Wright
“The way we were welcomed in as part of the team will stay with me, we were made to feel really welcome and not outsiders” – Ben Denton
“Probably Sam Fielden getting flattened. Bu probably the WR coach chewing me out for a dropped catch. The coach could only be 5 ft in heels but the guy commanded such respect and set such a high standard.” – Richard Bloomer
What was the main thing you learned from the experience?
“The main thing I learned was just to be more thoughtful about my movements when running routes and making them more crisp” – Sam Armstrong
“Main thing I learned – A confidence in my ability to play at a high level” – James Walter
“The main thing I learned was the value of execution, teams can elevate their game so much when everyone is dialled in, focussed, and working towards the same goal” – George Wright
“Stance at the line and how to burst out of it effectively” – Sam Fielden
“Go 100% in training and if we don’t go 100% getting beaten by the guy opposite me” – Richard Bloomer
“That as a committee we need to keep striving to improve the off field position of the club. Volunteers are also key and can enable the coaches to get on with the coaching” – Ben Denton
So, are you going to go back?
“I would definitely like to” – Ben Denton
“Yeah, cannot wait” – Richard Bloomer
“Unfortunately not!! I’m going to Japan in April so need to save for that” – Sam Armstrong
“Definitely” – Sam Fielden
The success of this mini-camp led the Oxford Saints to organise another trip to train with the Nice Dolphins, tarining with them on the 28th January. This seems to be the start of a fairly beneficial relationship between these two clubs, and having given these players a taste it seems to have left them hungry for more.