#Sapphire17 | Division One National Championship Playoffs & Rankings Preview

Saturday 8th April marks that time of year, play-off time and in the rather short season, that is women’s American Football in the UK, comes down to this very afternoon.

Leeds’ tidy West Park Leeds RUFC facility will be hosting eight teams, with Birmingham, Leeds, Hertfordshire and Manchester all teeing off for the national championship title with Edinburgh and Derby playing for bragging rights, contesting the fifth and sixth spots following the withdrawal of EKP and London from this final tournament.

First up, let’s take a look at the reduced field that will be fighting for a fifth place ranking.

Yes, disappointingly earlier this week we received word that both the East Kilbride Pirates and London Warriors would not be attending the final tourney of the year.

 

This was perhaps less surprising with regards the Pirates, who despite some plucky play all series long have struggled for numbers – compounded by unfortunate injuries throughout the series.

Speaking with DC, Pirates GM Amanda McDonald shared:

“Despite registering good numbers in pre-season, a number of injuries coupled with player availability issues have unfortunately taken their toll over the Sapphire season. We made a very tough decision that it was in everyone’s best interests, and especially in the best interests of safety for our players, not to travel to the final tournament with a small squad. Over the coming months we’ll be starting to prepare again for the next flag season, and at the same time will reviewing our approach to women’s football from the ground up to make sure we return with a bigger and stronger squad for the next Sapphire season.”

More surprising however was the withdrawal of the London Warriors who impressed in their first series in the seven on seven game, coming oh-so-close to snatching a playoff berth when they took a win away from the Tornadoes in the final tourney of the year – but by too slim a margin to snatch their #2 Southern Seeding.

DC reached out to the Warriors for comment on their withdrawal, but are yet to hear back.

This means it’ll be only the Edinburgh Wolves and Derby Braves descending on Leeds to go head to head for the fifth and sixth national ranking spots respectively.

These two are not entirely unfamiliar opponents, as they met earlier this series in the ‘East/West’ switcheroo between the Northern and Southern conferences back in Round Two, where the Braves emerged comfortable victors.

Photography (c) Tim Ox Photography
Photography (c) Tim Ox Photography

That said, we’ve seen some clear improvements from the Wolves during that time, including holding the ‘Big Blue Wrecking Crew’ of the Manchester Titans to a 6-6 draw a fortnight ago, so will be coming into this final round likely as confident as they’ve felt all year. Even so, it was a 29 point spread last time these two met, and that’s a lot to ask of the Wolves in their first season of sevens. Even given that, due to the two teams now only having the opportunity to play a single fixture each, they’ll likely play an ‘extended’ fixture – it’s Derby’s fifth place berth to lose at this point!

Birmingham are the only team to head into the play-offs unbeaten and have also never, in their relatively short history, lost to any of the teams coming to challenge for their crown. They will face Manchester first up, and if the Lions can circumnavigate Coach Jon Homer’s on the rise side, then they will reach the finals, and will be penned to do so by most, on paper at least.

Aside from early set-backs which saw GB LB Alice Smith wiped out for the season and the loss of DL practitioners Aimee Cottingham and Alex Rhian (following round one), we’re told the team is well-rested going into round four, thanks in main to the adoption of a strong rotation policy which ensures their returners stay hungry whilst their back-ups learn fast. This will come in handy as a tough two games await (whatever way the first result goes).

Photography (c) All Sports Photography - allsportsphotography.co.uk
Photography (c) All Sports Photography – allsportsphotography.co.uk

Enjoying a confidence boosting win (86-6) and a toughed-out draw (6-6) against East Kilbride and Edinburgh respectively, a fortnight prior, was enough to ensure the Titans secured a second place finish and a subsequent tilt at the title. A disappointing fifth placed finish last season will be improved on by default this time around but they’ll be hoping for more than a one place jump. The two Sian’s Kersse (RB) and Perry (WR) will be instrumental in trying to cause the Lions all-star defense some trouble and they’ll need to as its unlikely Birmingham’s offense will come away without points against a defense that whilst certainly determined has thus far been unable to shut out any opponent let alone the team with the highest ranked offense in the land.

Our expectation is that Birmingham will take this one, but don’t expect them to have it all their own way!

 

The second semi-final sees rivalries renewed as home-side Leeds take on Hertfordshire. Leeds come into proceedings as the top seeds from Division One North but they will be mindful of the defeats they suffered at the hands of both Hertfordshire (19-26) and Birmingham (14-49) in the Round Two tourney, when the north (as a collective) did not fare well at all against their South Conference counterparts. That being said 19-26 is a close score-line, just a play away from tying things up or snatching a win.

Injuries took their toll throughout that clash leaving both sides bereft of their influential RBs Ruth Brazier and Gaby Knops (for Leeds) and Oli Davies (for the Tornadoes), but Hertfordshire have always fallen on the right side of results against Leeds when it’s mattered and with the hope that GB WR core Sarah Glassborrow and Jessie Anderson will make a well-timed return it bodes well for the visitors.

Photography (c) Mick Hall
Photography (c) Mick Hall

With home field advantage however Leeds will be hungry for a result so expect them to go all in; expect LB Robyn Steward to lead the tackle count with DBs Beverley Marwood and Naomi Harryman zinging around somewhere close behind and for industrial-sized power? Look no further than Leeds’ DL who will be hoping to keep QB Sydney Green and Co quiet…albeit, all easier said than done!

It will also be interesting to see if Herts stick with utilising defensive players, Amanda Humphrey and Becky Martin in the backfield, a strategy that did, and indeed had to, serve them well in Round Three, chasing a score line as they were against London in order to keep this weekend’s play-off opportunity alive and well.

On this occasion we’re expecting Hertfordshire to sneak it courtesy of a bit more experience when and where it matters.

This’d then leave us with a Lions/Herts final, and a Titans/Chargers battle for third – but we’ll not stray into idle speculation here – if you want to see which team wins out, why not head along tomorrow and check out the games for yourselves!

West Park Leeds RUFC Ltd, The Sycamores, Bramhope, Leeds, LS16 9JR

#TeamDC are heading over to record the day’s action, so why not join them for a spate of fixtures that will also include the National Rankings games between Derby and Edinburgh!

 

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Nick

Nick 'Willy Tee' Wilson-Town hails from the South West where he's spent the last decade bouncing around various teams at the university and senior level. He came to fame on the now departed unofficial forum thanks to his regularly irreverent Uniball predictions and general 'BUAFL wafflage'. Follow him on twitter @WillyTee1