Under19s | Division Two National Finals Preview

While our Under 19’s office have done sterling work covering the top tier of the Junior game this summer, frustratingly we’ve lacked the resources to do the newly-created-for-2018 Second Division justice in coverage this season.

However, with the remaining six outfits heading to their National Finals this Sunday, hosted by the Black County Vipers, we’ll do our best to take a closer look at the six teams competing for silverware this Sunday – the highs and lows of their season, and expectations of each of them ahead of this weekend!

But first up – a call for assistance:

Division Two Finals Preview

The U19 game currently sits in an awkward position in Britball, struggling to bridge the gap between Under 17s and Senior football, while at the same time competing with the range of different distractions and commitments life offers to young athletes through the summer months!

With a number of programmes heading into the year unsure if they’d have sufficient numbers to survive a full nine-a-side campaign, BAFA created the seven-a-side second tier to allow those programmes which were struggling for player numbers to still hopefully be able to have a competitive summer of fixtures.

Nine teams began the season, but disappointingly only six have survived through to playoffs – the Cambridgeshire Cats and East Kent Mavericks each unable to sustain their roster through a full regular season, while the Chorley Buccaneers made it as far as the final tournament before injuries and absences forced them to call it quits just ahead of the postseason.

This leaves us with the following six seeded teams headed to the Black Country this weekend:

#6 Ipswich Cardinals

South, 2-4-0

It’s been a character-building year for the Cardinals in the feisty southern half of Division Two, with both their victories on the season actually coming as walkover wins against withdrawn teams.

That said, they’ve done a good job of competing in every fixture, never once shut out through their campaign and actually ending their regular season on something of a high when they put 20 points up on the Exiles in their final fixture – their best performance of the season against the top-seeded team in the conference!

While they come in as lowest seed they’ll take some confidence from having had a full three weeks off to prepare, and are more than familiar with their Round One opposition – the Wembley Stallions. In general, the Ipswich Cardinals have proven to be a programme on the up this season, one of a disappointingly low number of Division Two Adult outfits to boast a U19 team, with both rosters earning postseason honours in 2018!

Photography (c) Hazel Jacobson
#5 Leeds Academy Assassins

North, 4-2-0

The Assassins bounced back from a tough 2017 campaign to see postseason action this summer – going from winning zero games last year, to coming within a whisker of a conference title in 2018!

Frustrated to find themselves at the bottom of a four-deep pile of 4-2 teams, the Assassins are a fifth seed to watch out for! They came within a single score of actually claiming the Northern title this year, splitting their series against the Black Country Vipers 1-2, with the Vipers pipping the final, crucial, fixture by a mere five points!

Leeds Academy Head Coach Dale Bottomley shared:

“The Assassins U19s are eager to match the success of their teammates last week at U17 Britbowl. They’ve performed well and had tough battles against Black Country. A six hour round trip for one game proved they just want to play ‘ball!

They’re excited to end their season on a high with a day of highly competitive games.

It will be the last game for some of them at this age group before they head to Universities and take on BUCS ball.”

The Assassins will kick off their day with a new challenge, facing the #4 seeded Essex Spartans, in what should be great opening test of the strength between the two conferences.

 

#4 Essex Spartans

South 4-2-0

The Essex Spartans Academy is another great example of a Division Two Adult outfit proving that with the right priorities it’s possible to find success in the developmental levels of the game – the Spartans programme completing seasons at both U17 and U19 this year – the Under 19s earning a postseason berth in their first year back competing in the age bracket!

The Spartans started their year strong with big wins over Cambridge and East Kent – shutout victories a notably rare occurrence in the free-flowing seven-a-side format of the game, and the Spartans made a statement with not just one but two in their opening tournament – this was a defensive unit to be reckoned with.

They followed this up with an incredibly hard-fought affair against eventual #1 seed, the Exiles, narrowly edged out 31-30.

Essex responded to this heartbreakingly narrow defeat with nice victory over the Cardinals that made the Spartans look like shoe-ins for second place in the south, but they came-a-cropper against a stampeding Wembley Stallions in their final outing of the regular season – dropped out of what would have ended up being a first-round bye by the 37-16 loss.

Spartans Head Coach Steve Watson shared:

“At the Spartans, we are a family – players, coaches, backroom staff, supporters. Every member is equally as important to us. Every player who pulls on the teal jersey, does so knowing they will give the Spartans everything they have – and we will carry that approach into the Finals. One team, one family.”

With huge wins, narrow defeats and surprise losses, the Spartans have certainly proven a tough team to tussle with this year – both on the field, and as a pundit! They’ll open their postseason against a talented Leeds Academy outfit that similarly narrowly missed out on a higher seeding, and there’s a fair chance that whichever team wins this opening fixture should be considered a dark horse to hoist the inaugural Division Two title!

Photography (c) Hazel Jacobson
#3 Wembley Stallions

South, 4-2-0

The Stallions punched their ticket for the #3 seed with a hot-and-cold end to their season – a pair of reschedule fixtures that saw them take a heavy loss against the top-seeded Exiles, but paired it with a convincing, crucial, victory over the Essex Spartans, that snagged them the head-to-head and second place in the south!

In fact, they opened their campaign – their first in this age bracket – with very similar results! A big loss to the Exiles may have left them shaken, but a strong defensive performance to hold the Cardinals to only a single score means the Stallions come into these playoffs something of an enigma:

They’ve proven with wins over Essex and Ipswich that they’re a talented team on both sides of the ball, capable of both shutting down opposing offences, and putting up healthy numbers of their own… however on both occasions where they faced the Exiles this summer they found themselves outpaced – the Kent side putting up a combined 102 points between the two meetings and representing a clear ‘boogeyman’ for the Stallions heading into this final tournament.

They should enter their opening game against the Cardinals with some confidence, having already bested them once this year – even if it was now more than two months ago! If they can build good momentum with an early win, the playoff format will then see them take on #2 seed, the Vipers – meaning if the Stallions are on a Stampede on Sunday, they’ll have two games to get up to speed before potentially taking a shot at vengeance against the Exiles in the final?

Photography (c) Paul Pester

 

#2 Black Country Vipers

North, 4-2-0

Coming into the year the Northern Champions, the Black Country Vipers, were delighted with the announcement of the inaugural seven vs seven season for 2018. A young programme, the Vipers only joined the league in 2017, and initially their U19 roster found it particularly tough-sledging unable to notch a W in their first year in the league, forfeiting their final fixture of the year.

Roll forwards one year and the opportunity to play with the slightly smaller roster required for a seven-a-side balling sees them crowned the first U19 Division Two North Champions thanks to a clutch season-closing victory against the Assassins!

It certainly wasn’t smooth sailing to the top for the Vipers, however. While they opened their year with two big wins in the first tournament – strong running by Cy Roche and Reuben Eddy the key to moving to 2-0 to start the year – their fortunes were reversed in their second tourney. Despite a sterling performance by WR Matt Dutton the Vipers missed out by 2 points against the Assassins in their second meeting, before suffering a heavy upset against a highly-focused Chorley Buccaneers team.

With Chorley bowing out of the third and final northern tourney, the conference title came down to a crucial third fixture against the Assassins to determine who’d take the edge in the tied series. The Vipers put in a strong defensive performance led by Jack Marks and Alex Ames, holding off repeated threats from the Leeds offence to clinch the title and a first-round bye with a narrow 13-8 victory!

A second-place seeding sees the Vipers earn their way past the first round of fixtures – before facing either Ipswich or Wembley in the semis – the first ever meeting between these outfits, whichever southern side earns their way through!

With a talent-laden roster including Filton Academy ballers the Vipers have high hopes for succes in the finals on Sunday!

 

#1 Kent Exiles

South, 6-0-0

The Exiles’ Under 19’s continue what has been a simply astounding season for the Kent programme!

In just the formats of the game we cover here at DC, they’re the fifth Exiles roster to earn postseason honours, the third with an undefeated regular season, and could potentially be joined by the Adult roster this Sunday to make it a whopping four conference titles!

With a roster built upon graduates from their highly successful Under 17s programme, they’ve fought their way into the #1 seed coming into these finals thanks to an all-round outstanding performance throughout the season – boasting the #2 defence in the tier, and the best offensive output in Div Two (only outpaced in all of the U19 game by the London Blitz.)

A programme with great pedigree (the Exiles hoisted an U19 National Title just a couple of seasons ago in 2016) 2018 saw the Exiles’ rebuilding process come to fruition. Head Coach Aaron Alexis allowed young Coordinators Alex O’Halloran (defence) and Josh Proud (offence) the opportunity to step up this year, further developing the talented roster of play callers boasted by the Exiles.

An offence led by tandem running backs Josh Quarty and Bolaji Adelawe has punched in scores all year-long, complimented by a healthy passing game led by wideouts Callum O’Neill, and rookie Klein Brown, both coached by Exiles ‘graduate’ of the 2016 Championship side, Tom Lee. Coached by one of the bright young stars of British Quarterbacking, James Cook, QBs Mustafa Temsamani and Connor Weeden have split time under centre, so it’ll be interesting who steps out behind the youth-graduates bolstered O line on Sunday – U17’s product Joe Rowe, in particular, has been a stand out for the Exiles this year on both sides of the ball.

Defensively, while Kent had something of a scare against Essex in late June – edging their fourth W by a single point – it looks like they’d patched those holes by the final couple of fixtures. Theo Alexis and youth graduate Will Rough lead a strong linebackers corps, while Sean Lewis returns to the team following his first year balling with the Filton Pride, adding some immediate extra punch to the D Line. Harvey Beard and Yeni Fadiya are two rookies who’ve stood out in a well-rotated secondary, while Safety Alfie West has shown incredible passion for the game this summer – not only on the field, but also coaching the U17 Exiles’ Outlaws to a fifth-place National Plate finish this season!

Their undefeated regular campaign has earned the Exiles a bye in the first round before facing either the Spartans or Assassins in the Semis. Will any team be able to oust the Exiles from the top spot in this tier?

Photography (c) Carl Alexis
Fixtures

Round One:

  • #3 Wembley Stallions vs #6 Ipswich Cardinals
  • #4 Essex Spartans vs  #5 Leeds Academy Assassins

Semi Finals:

  • Winner of Essex/Leeds vs Kent Exiles
  • Winner of Wembley/Ipswich vs Black Country Vipers

Winners proceed to Division Two Championship game.


And before we close, huge credit this year must go to a couple of Coaches who’ve really gone above and beyond this season to essentially make a second tier of the U19’s game possible.

Speaking with coaches and reps at many of the programmes taking part this Sunday, they all wanted to give huge props to Coach Steve Watson of the Essex Spartans for being the glue that, with only very limited support available from BAFA this season, has stuck this season together and ensuring these young ballers get a summer of football.

Similarly, Steve himself wanted to give a huge shoutout to Tom Edmonds at the Black Country Vipers whose worked tirelessly to ensure Sunday’s finals were made possible.

The second tier of the U19 game has truly proven in 2018 that with passionate and committed individuals involved? Britball will find a way!

Congratulations to all the teams headed to the tournament and good luck to all involved!

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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