In line with feedback, we’re changing things up a bit this year in how we do our Uniball predictions. One thing we continue to receive feedback on is the inconsistency of the depth and quality of predictions between one conference and the next, due to the available time and ability of the writers that cover each group of teams, and how much information is made available to them.
To that end we’re going to shake things up this year and rather than attempting to cover all games with as much detail as possible with the resources available, we’re instead going to focus on particular stand out ‘Games of the Week’ - looking more closely at anywhere between one to three games, spread across the tiers, focusing on those games that perhaps looks particularly tasty and we can go into greater detail in the coverage of.
In Division One we’re going to take a closer look at two teams who are coming into Week Three with great momentum, after opening their campaigns with big wins… conveniently over the same opponent - an in-peril looking Plymouth Blitz!
Suddenly looking like two of the hot tickets for postseason football, the Southampton Stags and Cardiff Cobras opened their seasons with sizeable wins against a Blitz outfit that earned their way to postseason football last year!
Let’s meet the teams:
Formed in 1988, the Southampton Stags were a long-time powerhouse of the British University game, boasting four National Championships to their name over their 30-year history.
Initially formed from students out of both Southampton and Southampton Solent universities, that Stags fought their way to Championships in ’92, ’93, ’06 and ’08, before the move to BUCS brought in the single-institution ruling - immediately splitting this powerhouse programme in two to form new-local rivals, the Solent Redhawks.
Since the split, the Stags have long-struggled to regain their Championship contender form. They won the Thames Valley Conference crown in 11/12, but a lengthy drought followed - most crucially during the introduction of the tier system into BUCS football, as a shortened 4-2 campaign in 2014/15 saw the Stags assigned to Division Two football.
Finding themselves in a particularly strong 2A South for the 15/16 season, the Stags struggled - their 3-5 season representing an exceptionally rare losing record for this storied programme.
However, perhaps the disappointing campaign was the kickstart they needed, as it’s been onwards and upwards for the Stags since then - narrowly missing out on promotion in 16/17 before a sideways shift into the South West conference and an utterly dominant 17/18 campaign finally saw them fight their way up into the middle tier of Uniball.
While many-a-team struggles with the leap up a tier, the Stags got their time in Division One off to a perfect start with a big win - besting the Plymouth Blitz to the tune of a 65-12 scoreline!
Head Coach Graham Thorpe, who lead the Stags to their previous Championship in 2008, believes the programme’s strong start to the season is thanks to a combination of both exciting new additions to the team, but also welcoming back some old friends:
Off the field, I was delighted to welcome back three former highly experienced Stags Coaches and new graduate coaches to my staff and this has had a significant impact on the fast track development of the players.”
Team President Wil Scott added:
“Preparation has actually gone really well, recruitment was incredibly strong this year and we’ve got our biggest squad in years.
Added to this the return of some old coaching staff along with some graduates that have returned as positional coaches has allowed for the development of the whole roster, rather than coaches having to decide between focusing on developing rookies or returners.”
Looking ahead to this weekend, it’s been a goodly while since these two storied programmes have played on another. As such, Coach Thorpe has made sure his team keep their focus on themselves, and what they can do to take the lead in a competitive-looking conference:
“It’s early days, but I expect Cardiff to be in the mix come post-season, so it will good to benchmark our current team as we continue our journey to where our programme wants to be.
In terms of preparation, we are really focussing on ourselves at this time. Sure, we have scouted, schemed and have added some wrinkles, but our primary objectives have not changed since the first game I coached at the Stags in 2002, as we believe that provided our performances as individuals and units improve in every quarter we play, then the scoreboard will take care of itself.
It is going to be a very tight conference this year, so it’s far too early and dangerous to make any predictions. Neither Cardiff or Southampton will win the conference this weekend, but the performances of both teams this Sunday could be an indication of which direction things may go at the business end of the season.”
Ones to Watch
While the community are always interested to know what ballers they need to watch our for, Coach Thorpe emphasised that the Stags take a holistic approach, rather than focus on individuals:
“We have a team ethic at the Stags. We are not a Sports University, so we not have luxuries of being able to fund a championship or recruit ‘scholars’ from around the world, so the whole is always stronger than the sum of our parts.
Therefore it is always challenging to single out one player. We tend to share the wealth in both Pass and Run, whilst our defensive groups depth means we are able to rotate and platoon units.”
That said, he did share that offensively, the ‘Field General’ of the Stags offence is third-year Quarterback, Alistair Shaw who blasted the Blitz with five TDs and 259 yds through the air last weekend, wideout Frankie Norton contributing to this impressive statline with 124yds and a score from five receptions.
Defensively, Middle Linebacker Paul Gascoigne (no, not that one) is the heart of a Stags defence that kept Plymouth to just 12 points, along with lineman Sam Stickland who transitioned from Offensive Tackle to Defensive End coming into this season - impressing with 2.5 sacks in his debut at the position!
Another venerable outfit of the University game, the Cardiff Cobras have been part of the University game almost from the outset - joining the 87/88 season and fighting their way right to the top - lifting their sole National Championship as co-Champions with the Hull Sharks in College Bowl II!
Ever a competitive programme, the Cobras have only a handful of losing seasons across their three decades of Uniball, including two further National Championship appearances in 88/89 and 95/96.
In recent seasons they’re always in the conversation for potential promotion to the top tier, as they come into 18/19 off the back of playoffs for the past three seasons in a row! (We’ve been reliably reminded, 14/15 was the odd season where only one team went to playoffs from each conference.
it could well be more, but we don’t have any standings for the mythical 13/14 season currently… please get in touch if you know more!).
Even so, they’ll have been disappointed with their 4-4 record last year. Having picked up the 1A South West crown in 16/17, they found themselves just barely sneaking through to the postseason after a hit and miss year trading wins with their conference rivals, and ultimately dropping out without so much as stepping out onto the field when their postseason fixture versus Kingston was awarded as a walkover due to the weather.
However, Head Coach Sean Cook believes the team is in a strong place this season, after plugging some crucial gaps in the roster:
“We have prepared well this year and recruited at key positions, which will hopefully stand in good stead for next year and the year after.”
The Cobras opened their campaign with an impressive win over long-time rivals, the Blitz - the 41-point shutout victory a statement of intent to the rest of the 1A South West.
However, when the Stags followed suit with a similarly impressive victory over Plymouth, this showdown suddenly became all the more interesting:
“Southampton also achieved a good score vs Plymouth, so we are expecting a tough away game. It’s hard to know what to expect schematically as they have just been promoted, but I know they will want to prove a point!”
Ones To Watch
Playing out of South Wales, it’ll surprise few that the Cobras have a tendency to lean on their ground game with veteran running back Ross Ludlow picking up over 200 yds and a score in their Week One opener.
Even so, despite the torrid conditions, 3rd year QB and Club Captain Max Milburn had himself an impressive day, with a 67% completion percentage and 3TDs, favourite target Tight End Jason Roberts snagging two of the scores.
Defensively, linebacker Jack Pitt lead the Cobras’ shutdown defence, picking up two sacks, on top of four tackles for a loss against the south coast side.
When last they met…
We had to dig back in the archives for this one!
Best we can tell, and by all means we’ll welcome being corrected if we missed something, but the last time these two long-tenured programmes met on the field of play was in Week Ten of the 2006/7 season, with the Stags coming out on top 23-28!
They go on to make it to the Quarter Finals that year, coming up a score short against the Birmingham Lions.
But who’s winning this one?
Will it be the established middle tier contenders, or the returning-to-glory Southampton side?
Predictions for all BUCS fixtures are also incoming, they’ll just be in a simpler, pick’em style format this season.