Hertfordshire University welcomed the National Division One South conference to its de Havilland campus on Saturday for four games which would ultimately seal the fate of all its protagonists, be that onward to play-off football or ‘fighting with buns’, to secure final national placings in two weeks’ time. First up Derby.
Finishing fourth in last year’s Sapphire Series the East Midlands outfit entered Round Three knowing that unless they turned over either home-side Hertfordshire or Birmingham, two tough tasks any way you look at it, it was a best possible fifth placed finish they could hope for in the rankings tournament to follow.
Knowing what was at stake the Braves started well, care of industrious carries from Laura Thomson-Stevens, Hannah Odam and Ash Dell’Osa and with the visitors always a good bet on D, it was perhaps just reward that the half-time score was just 8-0 to the Tornadoes.
In the second half, the proverbial half-time oranges did the trick for Herts, as length-of-the-field-touchdown scores from defensive players Becky Martin and Amanda Humphrey (doubling up on the O in lieu of injuries) energised the score line and with a tag team of injuries starting to stack up for Derby’s offense the momentum had swung, the game slipping away, despite Verity Ellison’s smartly worked safety. Final score: 22-2.
After that it didn’t get any easier for Derby either, who next faced conference leaders Birmingham. Having met in Round One, and being on the end of a bizarre, pick-six offensive melt-down, we predicted the Braves wouldn’t ship anything near like the points they did on that day, and they didn’t. A 12-nil half-time lead, courtesy of Lions’ Ruth Matta and Jo Kilby (a TD a piece, off consecutive drives) the headlines, before Birmingham’s coaches began rotating their starters, on the O particularly.
With the Braves electing to run the clock down just as QB Ash Dell’Osa was gearing her O up with some aplomb, the Lions etched a further 17 points in to the referee’s notebook, safeties also swapped for good measure (Ellison again matched by Lions’ Sophie Etheridge), before a crunching all-round display by Lions’ Linebacker Lucy Kirk helped consign Derby to the national rankings scramble. Final score: 29-2.
Birmingham (having earlier) kick started their tournament against London, treated the division’s newcomers to a clinical opening display – registering 26 unanswered points by half-time – proving too much for the Warriors to hit back from. Aside from some ineligible jerseys on lineman enjoying some downfield manoeuvring, London worked hard on the field to earn their yards, with QB Chloe Baton drawing on all her experience to gain some traction for her side. A couple of tasty completions drove the team close but the Lions shut the door in a goal-line stance their Pride always seem to relish.
To London’s credit they remained defiant throughout and whilst they couldn’t progress, the Lions’ scoring prowess was tempered as a raft of changes derailed some of their first half momentum. Final score: 26-0.
…and on to the final game of the day and perhaps the one that mattered most: Hertfordshire vs London.
With the Lions confirmed as unassailable conference winners there was now only one play-off space to shoot for and with both teams able to secure it, it was game on… albeit London faced more of an uphill challenge in having to win, and win by 14 clear points (head-to-head rulings and points conceded acting as a decider) whilst Herts could afford to lose (but only by 12pts or less, having taken first blood in Round 1 (32-19)).
A ding-dong game subsequently ensued. London grabbed the head-start with a fine pass from Baton before Herts’ Humphrey re-established her sides’ lead, with a 2pt PAT to boot. The second half started in similar fashion, a strong Warriors opening score, pegged back by Humprey’s second long-range TD – the Linebacker, turned Running Back for the day, working well behind the Tornadoes’ experienced OL (ft. Dawn Seymour, Alex Lilly and Lucy Mott).
Herts had their chance to seal the deal when, after London were caught offside three times in succession, they almost intercepted in London’s end zone, but the cheer was short-lived as the Warriors stormed 39yds up field for a game-winning TD, courtesy of the impressive Marena Newton-Wright on the very next play. Final score: 18-14.
A fantastic win for London perhaps a little bitter-sweet – unable to overhaul the margin needed to progress, but a nonetheless win secured against last year’s Sapphire Series runner’s up – no mean feat in itself! London will be keen to finish their first foray as far up the national rankings as possible, bet against them achieving this at your peril.
Moving forward the top-drawer ties look tasty – Herts renewing rivalries with Leeds whilst Birmingham will take on Manchester. With the Lions having never lost to any of the sides in the mix will the reigning champions finish their season in style or will knock-out football deliver like only it can?