A bunch of crucial fixtures this Sunday with several crowns potentially being locked up as top rivals in a number of conferences go toe to toe! The Bulls and Surge clash for a second time, headlining crunch time in Division Two
NFC 2 North
Aberdeen Roughnecks 1-0 West Coast Trojans
NFC 2 Central
By Stuart Dick
Furness Phantoms v Halton Spartans
A battle of two play-off contenders in the NFC 2 Central as the Furness Phantoms take on the Halton Spartans, the visitors looking to end the regular season with a 6-1-1 record – while the hosts look to get to one game over .500. The first meeting between the two sides occurred in Week Eight when the Spartans romped home with a 41-7 victory.
It’s been a mixed season for the Phantoms who were far too good for the Morecambe Bay Storm and Carlisle Sentinels – but nowhere near the standard of the conference-leading Chester Romans, or even it seems Halton, losing by a large margin when the two teams last met.
Furness average 55 points per game against the table’s bottom dwellers, with three burgers in those three fixtures, but a mere 8.33 points per game when they face the top two. Nevertheless, they currently hold a play-off birth despite a 44-0 defeat last week against the Romans – currently the number seven seed, meaning they earn themselves a trip to Aberdeen (ouch!).
Meanwhile, the Spartans overturned a 30-point differential last time out, as they tied 6-6 with the Chester Romans, showing the progress that is being made in Merseyside.
They currently hold the number five seed and face a trip to the Staffordshire Surge in round one of the play-offs as things stand.
NFC 2 South
By Nick Wilson-Town
Birmingham Bulls v Staffordshire Surge
No John this week, and that’s a real pity because it’s a full slate of meaningful matchups in the NFC 2 South.
Of course the big tamale is the tussle at the top of the table, as the Bulls and Surge square off for a second time this season!
Birmingham took the first meeting back in Week Twelve 11-15, despite having trailed 11 to zip at the half! Shutting down the Surge offence throughout the second half was the key to victory there, and following the Brum offence misfiring against the Warhawks this previous weekend? Odds are they’ll be looking to their dynamic defence to lead the way once again this weekend!
The Bulls boast five defensive shutouts through seven games, but to give credit to the Surge, their offence has outpaced the other competition in the conference this year and should be considered a real threat if it plays to form.
Staffordshire have had three weeks to lick their wounds since their loss to the Bulls, while Birmingham will feel they didn’t live up to expectations in their most recent outing. How they respond to this underperformance could well be the key to this game.
While my head says this is Brum’s game to lose, especially if their defence plays to form… In the interest of a really interesting end to the season I’m gonna back the Surge to take it - by FOUR points. Tied head to heads, it’d then come down to average points conceded - go fetch your calculators Britball fans!
Lincolnshire Bombers v Humber Warhawks
Typically at this late stage of the season a 2-4 team squaring off with a 1-5-1 outfit wouldn’t turn any heads… But the reality is there’s actually still a lot to play for in the NFC 2 South, with the hard-done-by Bombers still avidly hunting some postseason balling!
The Warhawks actually held their own last week against the Bulls, so kudos there… and also, their kits looking pretty swanky this season too! However, they’ve only put up any points at all in three of their seven outings so far this season and while they’re nominally only half a game behind the Bombers who they travel to this weekend? The reality is Lincolnshire are a better outfit than their 2-4 record might imply.
Each of Bombers four losses have come against the top two teams in the NFC 2 South, uneven scheduling proving a cruel mistress. However, their playoff hopes aren’t quashed yet, as a third-place berth is still up for grabs if they can win out the year.
Knowing that? Don’t expect the Bombers to pull any punches this Sunday.
Humber have taken one and a half wins this season, but I can’t see them poaching an upset here. With playoffs on the line, Lincolnshire should move to 3-4, hot on the heels of the Railroaders in the #3 spot.
Knottingley Raiders v Crewe Railroaders
Your eyes do not deceive you! As things stand the Railroaders currently sit in the #8 seed in Division Two North, but can’t afford a slip if they want to keep things that way!
Ultimately, they’ll need help from elsewhere if they want to fend off a fight for third place from the Bombers, but a win this weekend will giving the oft-berated Crewe side their best shot at seeing postseason action, as well as the pride that comes with a .500 season.
Knottingley meanwhile will be gunning to finally get the break they’ve been looking for all season long and pick up their first W of the season. They came close but no cigar against the Warhawks, taking the tie in Week Thirteen, and odds are an on-form Bombers side in Week Sixteen may be too much of a stretch. This could be their last chance of putting a notch in the W column for 2018…
All that said, we shouldn’t forget that the last time these two teams met back in Week Eleven it was all-Railroaders - laying tracks right over the Raiders on their way to a 29 point shutout. That’s a big deficit for the young Raiders programme to overcome in not-so-many weeks.
Look for the Raiders to put some points on the board, but if Crewe can play to form they’ve looked much the better side this season and have a lot more on the line - a win giving them their best shot at some playoff action.
SFC 2 West
By James Ogier
Cornish Sharks v
South Wales Warriors Jurassic Coast Raptors
N.B. It looks like the Sharks are actually playing their second fixture versus the Raptors this weekend, not the South Wales Warriors! Our bad, we weren’t aware up this update to the schedule.
The Sharks have finally ended their five-game winning drought with a victory over the Jurassic Coast Raptors. The Cornish side came away with a close 14-8 win, though they definitely didn’t make it easy on themselves! Initially, the Raptors were on top - finishing the first half 8-0 - but words from Head Coach Brian Smallworth at half-time fired the Cornishmen up and they came away with the W. The Sharks will continue with their running game and hope that it’s strong enough to fight their way through the tough Warriors’ D. Heading south to them this Sunday, the Warriors have taken the crown as their own, meaning they are SFC 2 West Champions! Despite a close game against the Trojans in the first meeting between the two teams, the most recent game was a very different beast as the Warriors finished 42-0. A scoreline like that is impressive in its own right, but when you realise that they achieved it with their starting QB out for most of the game and their starting RB, Josh Hughes, still out, it really adds credit to the win. All three parts of the team worked well to show why they need to be out of Division Two. On offence, QB Dean Jackson went down early on, but the Warriors had a back-up plan in David Pruett. Pruett stepped took on quarterback duties, despite having been retired for the past two seasons… back when the Warriors were still in the Premiership! Pruett managed to earn the Warriors three touchdowns while on special teams, the South Wales unit continued to be a threat as Warren Coombes managed to return a 70-yard punt for a touchdown in the early parts of a game. The South Wales Warriors’ defence showed why they were the number one defense in Division Two (they also boast lowest PAPG in the whole of the league) with their fifth shut out of the season - and a cheeky pick six from Daniel Dacey! With the Warriors sitting at 6-0, crowned champions and having secured a place in playoffs, I don’t think they’ll be overly concerned about the Sharks. They’ll likely use this opportunity to give all their players game time to prepare them for the upcoming playoffs.
Torbay Trojans v Somerset Wyverns
It looked as though a completely different Trojans team travelled to South Wales on the weekend as they came away with a large 42-0 loss, as opposed to the 14-6 one that they were at the end of in the first game against South Wales. Sure, there were issues with travel due to a coach problem, but I was expecting a closer game.
The Trojans were strong against the the Warriors run game, but found it difficult to stop the pass. Unfortunately for Torbay, a lot of the reliable receiving targets were out of action in this fixture, meaning they had to focus heavily on the run, which the Warriors are great at stopping. I see this fixture as a blip and ultimately the Trojans need to celebrate the fact that they’ve made playoffs for the first time since their return to the league! For people who have been in the Trojans’ organisation for a few years, they understand what a long and tiresome journey it’s been to get to this point and so a massive congratulations is in order!
The Trojans will be facing Somerset and will need to defeat them to assert their dominance in the South West peninsula. Torbay still have a strong defense and strong runners, so I’m expecting them to go hard against the Wyverns to make amends for last week. If the game goes well, expect them to have plenty of rotation as they prepare for their first playoff run.
The Wyverns haven’t played for a few weeks now since their 21-21 tie against the Worcestershire Black Knights. When you consider they got whooped by the Knights 34-6 in their first fixture, it’s a great improvement by the Wyverns and show that football is on the up in Somerset.
No matter what happens with this game, the Wyverns won’t have a losing season, which isn’t something most teams can claim in their first year. The last time these two teams met, the Wyverns struggled with open-field tackling, but were able to stop the Trojans in their tracks when it came to the red-zone. If they’ve been able to improve the former, then they could disrupt some of the Trojans’ plans.
It’s the start of a great rivalry and while I get the impression that the Wyverns have improved, I think that the Trojans can up their game, too, when they want to. As long as the Trojans aren’t too down about last week and are focussed solely on this game, then I see them coming away with the W. Trojans to win.
SFC 2 South
By Patrick McAleer
Hertfordshire Cheetahs v Portsmouth Dreadnoughts
Someone’s 0 had to go, when these two sides finally faced off the other week, and that 0 belonged to the Cheetahs, as the Dreadnoughts kept their winning streak alive. It was a matchup that could have gone either way before the game and at the half the Cheetahs were on top, before Portsmouth pegged them back and won the game. So congratulations to the Dreadnoughts who proved me wrong and have one hand on the Conference title.
The standard set by the Cheetahs in their season so far wasn’t quite lived up to against the Dreadnoughts, who’s Division 1 level defence made life hard for Hertfordshire. Despite TD’s from receivers Rowan Huggins and TJ Ajayi, costly penalties gave the Cheetahs’ offence poor field position and they struggled to move the ball, as they have with ease so far this year. With two weeks off and facing the Dreadnoughts on their home pitch, it will be interesting to see if they can improve on this.
HC Craig Barnes has had the chance to reflect on this loss and said
“We realise we didn’t execute as well as we needed to last time, we will be better across the board this time. We are very much looking forward to welcoming Portsmouth to our home.”
Not quite the statement of intent that was made last time, when they threw down the gauntlet, but I imagine this Cheetahs side will come out hungry for revenge.
The Dreadnoughts players come into Sunday knowing they are 60 minutes away from a perfect regular season and extending their winning streak over the Cheetahs to four games, as they march into the playoffs. Last time out they were able to shut down the high pace Cheetahs offence, with a dominating display from the defence and punish them on offence. With scores from Kieran Bellinger and TE Jack Fleming through the air and Dan Thomas on the ground, the Dreadnoughts were able to consistently move the ball. Kicker George Evans was able to add a crucial field goal in the first half, as well as two extra points, to keep that pressure on the Cheetahs throughout the game.
Portsmouth HC Luke Head-Rapson isn’t resting on his laurels after a big win, as he said
“Whilst we are extremely happy to have gotten a tough win last time out against the cheetahs I’m fully aware that this game is going to be a more difficult task. I’m certain they’ll look to put forth an enhanced performance and it’s up to us to rise to the challenge. Hopefully we’ve addressed some of the glaring weaknesses in our performance and we are aiming to lock down the division championship and a top playoff seed Sunday if we can keep the Cheetahs big play ability under control and get another great performance out of our offensive line to get our ground game going.”
The Cheetahs will have to win by 12 or more points on Sunday if they are to overcome their margin of loss from the last meeting and come out as Conference Champions. Given Portsmouth’s tough defensive performances all season long? It’s a big ask.
I made my bed in the Cheetahs camp last-time out and I’m not going to jump ship and get on the Dreadnoughts bandwagon now (not that I’m against them either!). I feel like Herts should come out victors on Sunday with home advantage, but I don’t know if they’ll take it by enough of a margin to steal the head to head. Herts take the win, but Dreadnoughts take the crown.
SFC 2 East
By Joe Pinkstone
East Essex Sabres v Maidstone Pumas
A bumper slate of fixtures this week sees all the conference’s teams in action and some good match ups in the SFC2 East with playoff implications on the line. Unfortunately for the Sabres and the Pumas, their game is not one. Both teams are out of contention for the post season and as it stands this fixture pits the conference stragglers against one another.
Sitting at the bottom of the table, the Pumas have had a season to forget. They’ll hope to use the game to rep in rookies and look towards building for the 2019 season, as this year saw them crumple against all the teams they faced.
East Essex had so much promise early on and looked set to claim some scalps throughout the season. Unfortunately, they were unable to get over the hump and regressed in the latter part of their campaign after some key departures. Their record is probably a tad harsh, not reflecting how competitive they were early in the year, but they have only themselves to blame for the position they are in - simply unable to close out a number of nail-biting fixtures.
That one win however, came against the Pumas in their first game. The score then was 60-6 and filled the team with positivity that frustratingly never materialised into Ws.
Assuming the Sabres roster is still more or less intact by this stage of the season, I’d expect a similar result this week. Sabres to win and bookend a difficult season with two big wins against the poor Pumas.
Ipswich Cardinals v Norwich Devils
This is the tastiest fixture of the entire league for the whole season. Local(ish) derby, playoff implications for both teams and a mutual dislike/distrust of their DC correspondent.
I shall try and do the deeper dive on this one but stick with me.
As it stands:
Norwich – 2nd place – 5-1.
Ipswich – 3rd place - 4-2.
Currently, the Devils sit at #5 seed in the south and Ipswich sneak in as the #7 seed. Norwich had their one loss against the Blitz and pushed the London side closer than anyone else has managed (probably costing the Blitz number one seed status in the south in doing so).
Ipswich have picked up two losses, also only to the Blitz. Both dispatched the Pumas comfortably. Both had close games against the Sabres and the Spartans throughout the season, but pulled through in the end.
Thought that was close? Have a look at the points scored column. Norwich 163 vs Ipswich 162. Points against favours the Devils by 44, but the Cardinals have played the Blitz twice remember! One game was a 55-0 loss and the other, more recent one, was a 21-10 closely fought battle where the Cardinals actually led for the majority of the fixture!
Because the two teams are so closely matched, I reached out to the teams for comment on how they were feeling heading in to the make-or-break fixture.
A spokesperson for Norwich Devils told DC:
“We are sure Ipswich would have looked for the matchup first when the schedule was released and the fact there is playoff implications ramps things up a little more.
Both of us have had a good regular season and will look to top that off with a derby win. Obviously we hope it’s us.”
The diplomatic response for comment likely hides a rising excitement in the Norwich camp, despite the Devils claiming ‘the majority of our squad doesn’t really buy into the traditional rivalry’, the travelling fans will trigger an innate sense of loyalty and pride in their corner of the country.
Ipswich was approached for comment but it appears they attended the Marshawn Lynch school of Media Relations, with a polite, but succinct, ‘we’ll take what we’re given’ their response for insights into this weekend’s game. That said Head Coach Sandy Francis did pique curiousity with the revelation that ‘[The Cardinals] will have one last game at the end of September which will be of huge interest to all.’.
Tantalising I will admit, but useful for this prediction for the FarmBowl fixture? Sadly not.
Of all the predictions I had to make this season, this is the hardest. Two evenly matched teams, both refreshed and rested, and both fighting for playoffs.
Even though they barely threw me a crumb, let alone a bone, I will take a punt on the Cardinals to win this one, based on a close loss to the Blitz and mainly because I want to see it come down to the last game of the season in a big grandstand finish. Whilst the winner of this will likely get second place in the conference, this saga is still far from over.
Essex Spartans v London Blitz B
In our ITSET article it was revealed the Spartans are still in contention for playoffs, but to go beyond a mathematical possibility and become a reality they will have to topple Goliath, as the Blitz come to town.
The Spartans have scraped through this season so far, not meeting their own high standards but churning out just enough results anyway. In a similar way to the Sabres, they are a decent team that has simply fallen short of expectation against stiff opposition in the two upstarts and the dominant conference-leaders.
The Blitz look almost unbeatable at this moment and will be looking to turn the (P) next to their name in our tables to a (C) soon enough. Guaranteed playoffs, they are now playing for seeding, with a first place position and a dominant record likely to see them fight for the #1 seed alongside South Wales and Portsmouth.
With all these teams hoping to wrap up the year sat at 1.000 it will come down to PAPG. If the Blitz want the top seed and D2 South bragging rights they are going to need to aim for a shutouts against both the Spartans and Devils in their remaining two fixtures.
Certainly the capital’s team has the tougher run of it compared to their seeding rivals from elsewhere in the tier, so first and foremost their focus needs to be on putting in a strong defensive performance this Sunday.
The Blitz took the last meeting between these two 22-0, which bodes well for London’s crucial PAPG score. Spartans have been very competitive all year, but the 6-0 table-leaders look like a bridge too far. London take the win, and if the Cardinals help them out? Potentially the conference crown too.