It’s a wrap! Under wild weather conditions, Sapphire 18 ended this Saturday in Manchester. The best women’s team battled all afternoon against the elements to offer some great moments of football. So, what happened during Britain’s own version of the Snow Bowl?
Division One Gold Finals – National Championship Recap
By Céline Bisson
Game 1: Manchester Titans v Birmingham Lions
The Lions and the Titans had already met last year in the playoffs, and the game had ended in favour of the reigning champions. This year, the result wasn’t much different, as Birmingham beat Manchester 42-2.
What the score doesn’t reflect, however, is how Manchester made Birmingham work for every inch of turf in the first quarter of the game. Manchester’s swiss army knife player Eloise Walsh contributed a lot to slow down the well-oiled machine that is the Lions’ offence. Playing on both sides of the ball, she was the heart of that strong Manchester run defence.
As planned, Birmingham chose to rep a lot of its depth, and let quarterback Natalie Parker lead an offence mainly composed of rookies. The third-year quarterback had a good day in the office and rushed two of the Lions’ touchdowns herself, while rookie linebacker Maggs Bevan-Smith recorded Birmingham first (but not only) defensive touchdown.
Despite Manchester’s best efforts, Birmingham took the lead before half-time and didn’t let-up until the end, despite the Titans scoring a last-minute safety moments before the final whistle blow.
Game 2: Leeds Carnegie Chargers v London Warriors
This game was one of the most anticipated of the day, as it would determine who would face Birmingham in the finals and have a shot at engraving their name on the Sapphire trophy.
Who would it be? The Chargers, the northern powerhouse, or the Warriors, the underdogs who had the odds stacked against them?
Unfortunately for London, the game very much went like the last time both teams met, with an almost similar score: 34-14 to Leeds (it was 32-13 when the teams had met during Round Three a few weeks ago).
Leeds started strong, with an interception followed by a safety scored by Sapphire 2018 MVP Bo Steward on London’s first possession. Despite London’s strong performance and two touchdowns, with linebacker Jayne Meadows playing on both sides of the ball and Shay Okelola making big plays, it simply wasn’t enough to stop Leeds’ offence.
Chargers’ quarterback Lucy Peaty did not disappoint on finals day after a strong season: she recorded two rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown (to Steph Warren).
Bronze medal game: London Warriors v Manchester Titans
After losing to the Chargers, the Warriors were determined to leave a mark in the Sapphire history and claim the remaining podium spot, whilst the Titans, underdogs of this game, were hoping to improve from last year’s 4th ranking.
Unfortunately, Manchester’s efficient run defence wasn’t enough to stop the likes of Jayne Meadows and Marena Newton-Wright on offence, who scored most of London’s touchdowns. With most Warriors players playing on both sides of the ball, Siobhan Walker was no exception, but she made an important impact while being on the defensive side, as she recorded several tackles and safeties.
London’s defense, on the other hand, managed to stop completely Manchester’s offence, and kept them scoreless. Final score: London 28-00 Manchester.
The final game: Leeds Carnegie Chargers v Birmingham Lions
Rather unsurprisingly, the Sapphire finals were a remake of last year’s, with Leeds coming in as the challenger and aiming at taking their revenge on the Birmingham Lions, who beat them 56-6 last year.
The first half of the game was extremely tense. Both teams neutralized one another at first, until Lions’ running back Ruth Matta opened the score after rushing the length of the pitch. The Chargers answered it almost immediately with Gaby Knops rushing for a touchdown only minutes later. With both teams making such a strong statement, the game was on, and looked nothing like last year’s one-sided final.
Both defences fought hard not to be the next one giving up a touchdown: Chargers’ Laura Dye and Bo Steward contributed to some big plays, whilst Nancy Stone and the rest of the Lions’ secondary stopped Leeds’ outside runs.
That status quo didn’t last: Lions’ quarterback Jo Kilby rushed for a touchdown before the half, and Lions’ linebacker Laura Moore picked up a fumble in the Chargers’ end zone for a touchdown, allowing Birmingham to take a two touchdowns lead on their northern rivals.
The Chargers never once gave up in a game that can also be described as a battle of the running backs. Leeds kept pushing for more and making plays in offence, courtesy of Gaby Knops, who played on both sides of the ball and was on for most, if not the entirety, of the game. With Knops going against the Lions’ linebacker core, made up of a wealth of hard hitters including Phoebe Schecter and Afia Law, Leeds were fighting hard for each and every first down. On the flip side Ruth Matta shined as ever, the Lions offence outrunning its opponents.
The game was nothing short of spectacular and was arguably one of the best games in the Sapphire series’ history, both for the skills on show and resilience shown on both sides.
The game ended 40-22 to Birmingham. This year more than ever, the Lions showed why they are now five times national champions: very talented individuals, obviously, but not only. Birmingham’s program has a well-established structure, programme, and coaching staff, and never stops renewing its roster, adding new talent year after year to keep the legacy going.
The game was much closer than last year, showing that the competition is getting tougher and tougher, and the gap is closing between the teams. This is also the sign of women’s gridiron football in the UK elevating its level. Each and every team has given us something to look forward to next season. Roll on Sapphire 19!
- 1st – Birmingham Lions
- 2nd – Leeds Carnegie Chargers
- 3rd – London Warriors
- 4th – Manchester Titans
Division One Series MVP – Bo Steward, Leeds Carnegie Chargers
The Finals Tournaments wrap up another incredible Sapphire Series, and yet another step forward in the Women’s game, with more teams competing than ever before.
With the growth of the seven-a-side game, what does the future hold for #Sapphire19? Might we see teams competing at different levels? An expansion of the top tier to include impressive Div 2 outfits like Portsmouth and Sandwell? And how far off are we from a 9-a-side Series?
With Diamond Series still ahead in 2018, it’s clear the British Women’s game is still all steam ahead at the conclusion of Sapphire 2018!