The Sapphire Series returns for its penultimate performance, as three of the four conferences wrap up their regular series fixtures this weekend!
By the time the dust settles on Saturday evening, we’ll know which teams are seeded where in the National Finals for Division One, we’ll see if the Wembley Stallions can complete an undefeated 8-0 regular series, and which team is ready to emerge as the frontrunner in Division Two North!
With all four conferences in action this week, and still a lot at stake for all teams involved, let’s take a quick look at what to expect from this weekend’s Sapphire showdowns!
Division One North
A fornight ago it was all about the second round of fixtures, so perhaps it’s only fitting that this time around the juiciest matchups in Division One North are front and centre, in the 1230 clashes between the Titans and Braves, and the Wolves and Chargers!
With the Pirates having wrapped up their campaign in Week Four, we’ll see four programmes descend on Leeds this Saturday, each with a lot on the line.
For the Titans and Braves, playoffs may be out of reach, but there’s still a lot more than just pride at stake, as odds are the round one clash between these two will decide which team finishes bottom of the table for 18/19.
With both teams tied at 6 League points, the Manchester Titans will be hungry for their first victory of the Series. They’ve shown some clear development from one tournament to the next, and having been on a bye in Week Four should come into this weekend’s fixtures healthy and ready to lay it all on the line for a crucial first notch in the W column.
The Derby Braves, however, will have no intention of giving away the #4 spot in the North without a fight! The Braves bested the Titans back in Week Two with a narrow 8-6 victory, and it’s this lone win that’s kept them afloat in the conference, despite their struggles with numbers that meant they’ve missed a full tournament this series.
Eager to bolster their chances, the Braves have been working closely with the Peterborough Royals in recent weeks, so expect another close-fought contest.
However, without offence to the other fixtures, there’s one clear headline matchup this Saturday – the second meeting of the series between the Edinburgh Wolves and the Leeds Carnegie Chargers!
The two teams met for a first clash a fortnight ago in Edinburgh, and despite a slow start the Wolves tenacity won through in the second half to allow the scots side to edge ahead and take the #1 spot in the North. Now, however, the Wolves will head south of the wall to take on the Chargers on their home turf, and with both teams already knowing they’ve secured postseason football, there’s only really one thing at stake here: The Division One North title!
Two talented, highly physical outfits, expect a hard-hitting clash where both teams’ stars shine all the brighter as key ballers play ironwoman football throughout this one, each Head Coach ensuring their top athletes are on the field for as many snaps as possible.
Leeds need to win, and if Sapphire use the same tiebreakers as elsewhere, only by a margin of two points or more, to steal away the top spot in the North – but boy will they have to fight for it!
After these crucial clashes to kick the day off, the second round might look something of an anti-climax – the Wolves and Chargers have already proven themselves a cut above the rest of the conference earlier in the series, each taking away hefty victories from the Braves and Titans respectively…
That said, both teams need to be careful not to come into these second games either too battle-weary, or too complacent – it’d be a gutwrenching experience should, say, Leeds snatch away the top spot in the North with a win over the Wolves, only to give it right back to them by slipping up in the second round against the Titans!
Division One South
The withdrawal of the Dreadnoughts from the Series means we’ll see a reduced slate of teams head to a rearranged venue in Sandwell this Saturday, as the Steelers play host for a second time in 2019.
With the Warriors’ having staked their claim to the Southern title with a 6-2 record, the focus this weekend will be on the defending Champs, the Birmingham Lions. Having bested the Warriors for a second time in Week Four, Birmingham control their own fates with regards a southern title defence, and simply need to play to form in their fixtures against Sandwell and Hertfordshire to ensure they lock up the Southern crown for yet another Series!
They’ve comfortably beaten Herts twice already, in Weeks Two and Four, and inflicted a heavy loss on Sandwell in Week Three. As such, they only need avoid a disastrous slip in form in these final regular-series matches. A good goal for both the Tornadoes and Steelers might be to put their first scores of the year on the Lions, each having been shut out entirely in previous meetings.
Indeed, for the Sandwell Steelers in particular, offence will be their focus this Saturday – while their defence has steadily upped its game throughout this 18/19 campaign, their offence struggled in Week Four, unable to find paydirt in either game.
Expect the third and final meeting of the day between the Steelers and Hertfordshire Tornadoes to be the most hotly contested clash. They matched up well just a fortnight ago, with Sandwell holding Herts to just two scores, and should their own offence start putting up points? This should be a corker of a game!
Third place in the South is on the line, with (if Sapphire use the same tiebreakers as elsewhere in Britball?) the Steelers needing a win by 10 points or more to leapfrog the Tornadoes into a podium finish in the South.
Division Two North
The only conference that won’t be wrapping things up on Sunday, Division Two North still has everything to play for as exciting step-ups in form for the Bears and Steelers in Week Four means all three teams find themselves tied up at 2-2!
Originally intended to be hosted by the since-withdrawn Peterborough Royals, the three teams will head to neutral venue, Sandwell, for their third tournament of the year. Might Teesside see it as something of a good omen that they’ll be playing at a venue that’s nominally the home of the ‘Steelers’?
Certainly, each team will be looking for every edge they can get, as this as easily proven itself to be the most hotly-contested conference in the women’s game!
The Cheshire Bears come into this weekend riding the hottest streak in form, and they’ll hope their momentum stays with them as they open the trio of fixtures with a brawl against the Birmingham Lions B on Saturday. The Bears put in their best offensive performance of the Series so far against the Lions in the last meeting between the two, but following two losses last week expect the Lions to be eager to up their game and keep themselves right in the race for the top spot.
Following this one, there’ll be little rest for the Bears as they follow right up with a tussle against the Teesside Steelers. These two teams fought a tough contest in the opening game of Week Four, with the Bears on form offence allowing them to outpace the Steelers 24-12 – notably the lowest scoreline we’ve seen from this offensively-dominated conference so far!
Finally, the day will come to a close with the Steelers taking on the Lions, and following a hefty win for Teesside in their game against the Birmingham Bs two weeks ago, the Lions will be hoping that having a game off in between might be the key to bouncing back against the veteran Teesside side.
With the results so far from this conference proving utterly unpredictable, the only thing we know for sure for these teams is it ain’t over til it’s over! Even should one of the three programmes emerge with two wins from Saturday’s showdowns, we still won’t know who’ll be hoisting the Northern crown for 18/19 until the fourth and final D2 North meeting on 23 February.
Honestly? We’re hoping we somehow see each team win one game this weekend and it gets stays just as confused and contested going into the final week with EVERYTHING to play for!
Division Two South
And finally, we close out this preview by taking a closer look at the southern half of the lower tier, where disappointing news out of the D2 South is that the Cardiff Valkyries have been forced to withdraw from the final tournament of the Series due to low player numbers.
A disappointing end to Sapphire for a team that have really impressed with their resilience this winter, but we wish the Valkyries the best in bouncing back all the stronger for their next contests!
This leaves just three teams on the slate for the fourth and final tournament in Oxford this weekend, as the Saints welcome Wembley and Kent on Saturday.
Hosts, the Oxford Saints might, in fact, be the team feeling most hard-done-by by the withdrawal of the Valkyries from their tournament, as a rejigged schedule means their scheduled fixture against the Valkyries has instead been replaced with a day-opening clash against the undefeated, and in truth largely unchallenged, Wembley Stallions!
Already handicapped by only having a six-game schedule, the Saints’ best and only hope for postseason football was coming away from this weekend with two wins, versus the currently-third-place Kent Exiles suffering double defeats. This would leave Oxford tied with the Exiles on fourteen points, but having beaten Kent in all three meetings between the two this series.
Now, however, instead of clashing with the winless Cardiff, the Saints will have to weather the storm of taking on the Stallions, who’ve already sealed the deal on Division Two South title courtesy of their 6-0 record coming into this weekend!
The Stallions made short work of the Saints in both previous meetings between the teams – 34-0 wins for Wembley on each occasion, and so even with their title secured and thus less on the line, we expect Wembley to still come into this final tournament hot favourites to win both their matchups!
The second fixture will feature Wembley once more, as the Stallions strive for an undefeated 8-0 record. They’ll take on the Kent Exiles for just the second time this season – having defeated them comfortably, 0-30, back in Week Three.
And finally, the southern half of the lower tier will wrap up with what’s expected to be the most closely-contested game of the day, as the Saints and Exiles go head-to-head for a third time.
Oxford took the first meeting between these two teams 32-0 back in Week One, but things were much tougher the second time around as a much-improved Exiles squad held the Saints to just a 14-6 win in Week Three. Even if Oxford find themselves in a position where they can’t catch the Exiles at this point (having lost to Wembley) don’t expect either outfit to give up on this game, eager to close out their regular-Series fixtures on a high!