Last Saturday Derby hosted the third round of the Sapphire tournament. The first (and only) cross-conference tournament was an opportunity to see some teams who had never played each other before compete, on top of featuring some strong fixtures, including rematches from last year’s playoffs.
Division One Cross-Conference Tourney Recap
By Celine Bisson
The Leeds Chargers and London Warriors were meeting for the first time in the Sapphire Series’ history. Since the beginning of the season, the Chargers established themselves as the northern powerhouse, starting Round Three 4-0, whilst the Warriors proved that they were not to be underestimated in the South, despite having a small squad.
As expected, the game was tense and a true battle in the trenches between Leeds and London’s very aggressive lines. Great Britain OL Laura Dye embodied that perfectly and earned the game’s ball from her coaches after playing on both sides of the ball for Leeds and causing a fumble in the Warriors’ end zone (which turned into a safety).
London’s defence made some big plays, including sacks, but that wasn’t enough to stop Leeds’ offence, led by dual-threat quarterback Lucy Peaty.
Final score: London Warriors 13 – 32 Leeds Carnegie Chargers.
Meanwhile, on the 3G pitches, the Hertfordshire Tornadoes were facing the Edinburgh Wolves. After a rough start, plagued by injuries for Herts, the Scottish side was ready to make a statement after a successful campaign last year, beautifully topped off by a close win against Derby in the finals to secure the 5th national ranking. The Tornadoes, however, showed that we hadn’t seen the last of them and silenced any doubters by winning 27-7 in a game that can be described as an impressive defensive showdown.
The Wolves’ defence was able to stop Herts’ run game thanks to key defensive players in the box (DL Ashleigh Bell and LB Lara Connel, to name a few) and put a lot of pressure on the Tornadoes quarterback, keeping Herts’ offence scoreless at halftime, whilst the Tornadoes’ defence got them off the mark, scoring three safeties.
After the break, the Wolves’ offence came out stronger and was able to move the ball more easily. A strong offensive line and Amy Wright sealed the deal and contributed to Edinburgh’s first offensive touchdown. However, Herts’ offence made some much-needed adjustments during halftime and widened the gap with deep passing plays, making the most of GB wide receiver Jessica Anderson’s talents.
The game ended with a win for the Tornadoes, 27-7.
The Titans had only lost one game this season, and with Derby’s much improved side, especially in offence, thegame between these two promised to be an interesting one. After having withdrawing early from their game against Birmingham before the end during Round Two due to too many injuries in the line, would Derby be able to compete again?
The answer is apparently yes. Derby’s offence racked up the points, with once again a solid performance from QB Colette Wong and a notable contribution from Laura Thompson-Stevens, whilst keeping the Titans’ offence scoreless. Manchester’s solid run defence, however, put 2 points on the board with a safety.
Final score: Manchester Titans 2 – 32 Derby Braves
Finally for this first round of fixtures, and perhaps the biggest mismatch of the day, the Birmingham Lions-East Kilbride Pirates game was a one-sided affair, but with both teams taking a lot from the game.
As expected, the Lions repped some of their depth and started its rookies, some of which showed a lot of potential. The offence, led by Natalie Parker, managed to move the ball efficiently and to score many touchdowns, with significant contributions from rookie RB Ashleigh “Mash” Aiston, Birmingham receivers Rachel Trim and Kim Tsiga, and Parker herself.
Meanwhile, the defence managed to stop East Kilbride’s attempts, with big plays made by DBs Wiktoria Jörren, Ellie Thorpe and Caley Parnell.
Credit where credit’s due, EKP’s attitude was nothing short of exemplary, reflective of their attitude since the beginning of the series. They exuded an absolute passion for the game, displayed great sportsmanship, and their tenacity paid off: after a pass from QB Claire Cochrane to Nicole Smith, the Pirates scored a late TD against the four-time national champions.
The fixture ended with a win for Birmingham, 66-7.
The most awaited game of the day happened during the second round: a rematch of last year’s final between Leeds and Birmingham, both undefeated in their respective divisions. The Chargers entered the game confident, coming off strong after a victory against London, whilst most of Birmingham’s starters were all rested, fresh and ready to go.
Unfortunately for Leeds, the game looked a lot like last year’s final, with the Lions’ offensive trio Jo Kilby, Hannah Pye and Ruth Matta moving the ball quickly and opening the score early on in the game.
Leeds’ offense moved the ball well too, thanks to GB running back Gaby Knops’ hard hitting running style and Robyn “Bo” Stewart, who made a massive impact on both sides of the ball, whilst the former and Steph Warren were responsible for Leeds’ two touchdowns. However, Birmingham’s defence was too hard to crack, with LB Afia Law and Phoebe Schecter wrecking havoc in the middle and DB Nancy Stone getting a crucial interception in the second half.
The game ended with a 54-14 win for the Birmingham Lions, who inflicted the first defeat of the season on the Chargers.
Saturday saw another much-awaited rematch from last year’s playoffs, with Derby facing Edinburgh after losing by an inch last year.
Capitalizing on the momentum gained from a stronger second half against Herts, the Wolves’ offence hit the field running with three touchdowns in the first half, courtesy of WR Emily Mullen, QB Amy Wright and RB/LB Rachael Moody. Derby quickly closed the gap with two touchdowns, but failed to convert on both PATs due to a dominant performance from Moody.
The last seconds of the game were nail-biting, as Derby, trailing by 1, regained possession of the ball but Edinburgh’s defence held up well and kept them out of the end zone.
They say history repeats itself: it was definitely true there, with Edinburgh emerging victorious by ONE point only (20-19) against the Derby Braves!
The Tornadoes came out strong of their matchup against the Edinburgh Wolves. Having won both previous games against the Titans, Hertfordshire were seen as favourite, although Manchester was ready to make a statement after a strong campaign in the North.
Once again, Herts’ defence was dominant. With strong showings from last year’s series MVP Becky Martin, GB LB Amanda Humphrey and rookie Eliza Grace, playing on both sides of the ball, the Tornadoes’ defence forced many fumbles and scored three out of Herts’ four touchdowns. Despite some struggles, Manchester’s offence scored their first touchdown of the day, whilst the defence only allowed one touchdown, courtesy of Herts’ RB Audrey Annabel.
Final score: Hertfordshire Tornadoes 28 – 10 Manchester Titans
Round Three was definitely a tough one for East Kilbride, facing the Birmingham Lions first followed by their closest rivals in the South, the London Warriors. After sustaining some injuries in the first game, the Pirates’ players were left with no choice but to play on both sides of the ball in order to complete their last game of the day and avoid having to forfeit, showing once again a determination and passion for the game that deserves recognition.
The game ended on a shutout victory from the Warriors, 88-0, who were dominant on both sides of the ball.
Overall, the South kept the upper hand with six wins out of eight fixtures, and showed why it is one of the toughest, strongest divisions in Women’s football. Round three was definitely a teaser for what’s to come in the finals: expect some rematches of today on the 17th of March.