In a pair of great displays of the talent available in the second Division, two hard-fought finals saw the Aberdeen Roughnecks emerge as Northern Champions with a nail-biting overtime victory, while the Hertfordshire Cheetahs got the better of their conference rivals, the Dreadnoughts for a second time out of three meetings between the two teams this season.
The biggest prize, promotion to Division One, may have already been secured - but you wouldn’t have known it when watching these games, as all four teams played with great zeal, putting on a show for their fans that travelled to the game, and watching the Live Streams.
Of course, that’s not to say the weekend was without issues - new venues and a first-ever attempt to stream both Division Two Finals had some significant ‘teething problems’. The Northern Final stream experienced significant technical difficulties throughout the first half, but luckily stabilised ahead of the crucial overtime period, while in the South the victorious Hertfordshire Cheetahs were reportedly disappointed to learn their championship silverware was still at the engravers.
Even so, the games themselves were both impressive displays, with all four teams attending boasting sizeable rosters many Division One or even Premiership outfits would be envious of!
For two teams that had largely scored with wanton abandon during the regular season, the Northern Final was a very cagey affair. Nerves certainly seemed to play a part, as both teams made mistakes that cost them momentum and possession.
The Chester Romans eventually broke the deadlock deep into the second quarter, as on fourth and one Quarterback Byron Ward was flushed out of the pocket, rolled to the right, and having seemingly tucked the ball away to run, suddenly popped a pass forwards to connect with his favourite target, Nathan Jewkes in the corner of the end zone. However, an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the touchdown scorer saw the PAT pushed back fifteen yards, which resulted in the kick coming up short - a lost point that would come back to haunt the Romans later in the game.
A shower of flags against the Romans saw the Roughnecks progress deep into Chester territory, before an ambitious ~43yd field goal split the uprights to put the score differential at three going into the break.
The second half saw more of the same, with both teams struggling to make much progress with the football - but penalties against the Chester defence, three personal fouls, including two rarely-seen ‘Illegal Use of Hands To the Face’ penalties in just one drive, once again allowing the Roughnecks fresh opportunities to drive deep into Chester territory, combined with strong runs from #25 Diego Esquer.
Still, when pressured the Romans D held firm, stuffing Aberdeen at the half yard line, and while the Romans offence couldn’t get clear of the end zone, a short-snap punt pushed Aberdeen back to their own half.
The two evenly-matched teams traded possessions back and forth going into the fourth, with the light continuing to fade. The Roughnecks threatened again, with a first and goal situation, but Chris Breen couldn’t connect with his receivers and the Scotsmen were once again forced to look to their field goal unit - the Special Teams successfully tying up the game at 6-6 with around 10 minutes on the clock.
A couple of highlight reel plays shone through the poor lighting, including a great gain from a broken tackle by Romans’ stand-in RB #25 Tom Peto, but neither team could find paydirt, taking the game to overtime.
Chester took the first possession, but couldn’t capitalise, whereas overtime nerves hurt Aberdeen as a fumbled snap was pounced on by the Romans D. Momentum swinging the Romans’ way, the Aberdeen offence came back out for a second series, and Breen showed a short memory as he quickly forgot his mistake on the previous drive and threw a trio of nice passes to the sideline to push the Roughnecks offence forwards, setting up the Roughnecks at the 2yd line.
Finally, the Romans’ Red Zone defence buckled, as the Roughnecks brought out their heavy package and Nose Tackle #44 Grant Travis followed his blockers into the end zone for a go-ahead score.
With the extra point slotting through the uprights, this gave the Romans one last chance to keep themselves in the game. Despite some strong running by Tom Peto, playing his first stint of RB in 2018, the Romans couldn’t quite find what they needed - penalties pushed them back and forced into throwing deep, the Chester passing game couldn’t connect and #69 Andrew Watts dragged down Ward on fourth down to close out the game, leading to massive celebrations on the Aberdeen sideline!
Contrasting with the late start for the Northerners, it was bright sunshine that greeted conference rivals Hertfordshire and Portsmouth to Leicester Road on Sunday.
There were a couple of new commentators standing in for Onside who were simultaneously covering the Birmingham Lions‘ Pro Cloud Trophy fixture, but the stream went off without a hitch.
Both teams boasting large rosters and with scores to settle, the game got off to a quick start as the Cheetahs offence scored on their very first play of the game - a play-action was bought by the entire Dreadnoughts defence, leaving TJ Ajayi to catch and scoot clear down the sideline for the game’s first points! The 2PAT was no good - something of a trend for the Cheetahs in this Final - but it was a statement start for the Hertfordshire outfit.
Portsmouth couldn’t get anything going, so Herts came out once again with DC’s ‘One to Watch’ Adam Adeniji immediately showing his worth - his great combination of strength and speed driving the Cheetahs down the field before a botched snap recovered by the Dreadnought D killed their second drive.
The second quarter started with the Portsmouth offence continuing to struggle to break out any big plays - the Cheetahs D doing a good job of containing agile rusher Ben Meyers, before pressure forced a mistake out of the Pompey Quarterback Stu Reece, Ben Brown picking up his first interception of the what would be a lively game for him.
The teams traded possessions before it looked like Cheetahs D had come up with a big play - #57 linebacker Josh Kent jumped the route, but a defensive holding flag robbed him of his stat, and gave the Dreadnoughts a fresh set of downs deep in Cheetah territory.
The two-minute warning saw Pompey knocking on the door, and despite having two shots at a short field goal, the Cheetahs ‘bulk package’ field goal blocking unit proving quite a handful.
A 6-0 score at the half mirrored the tense Northern final, and the Cheetahs offence opened up the second half by going backwards - finding themselves in a fourth and 26 situation to wrap up their first drive.
The Dreadnoughts still couldn’t seem to bring their firepower to bear, and Adeniji began to come into his own as the hot weather took its toll on both teams. Two big back-to-back plays set the Cheetahs up on the Dreadnoughts’ 20, only for yet another mistake to give the ball back to Portsmouth as the snap went high and was recovered by Pompey.
The Cheetahs D was on fine form however, two big tackles for a loss put the Dreadnoughts on the back foot, before an errant pass under pressure was snagged by ballhawk Jordan Legge, who undercut the pass and took it back ~35 yards for the second score of the game!
Flags continued the influence the game, as the Dreadnoughts drove deep into Cheetah territory, big fullback #42 Aron Evers setting Pompey up on the 2 yard line to start the fourth quarter. Two plays later Stu Reece snuck through a stacked Herts’ D-Line for the score, and a good PAT saw Portsmouth draw within five with a full quarter to go.
A big return from Ayaji, combined with a fifteen-yard tack-on for a’hands to the face’ call set Herts up deep in Dreadnought turf straight away, and Adam Adeniji went to work - patient running pushing into a first and goal situation from the two.
Rewarded for his workhorse efforts, Adeniji juked through the middle for a score, extending the Cheetahs lead with 10 minutes still on the clock.
A big play with a deep interception by Dreadnoughts #78 (and a bigger block on the return) set the Dreadnoughts up with good field position, but chasing a two-score deficit Portsmouth were forced to rely more and more heavily on their passing game, and a great catch by Ben Brown saw the Cheetahs offence right back on the field.
Stuffed by a resilient Dreadnoughts D, Portsmouth got another shot at closing the gap from inside the Herts’ half, but again Reece could only connect with the Cheetahs’ Brown for his third interception.
Herts answered back with the exact same play that had opened the day’s scoring, with Ayaji busting for a 70yd gain. Mere minutes on the clock and the Cheetahs had great field position, finding Rowan Huggins on the fade to the right to extend the score to 24-7.
A valiant final drive from Portsmouth saw them convert on fourth and sixteen to Aron Avers, but a final rogue pass was picked off by #23 Tirell Jeffers, allowing Herts to close out the game in victory formation.
All in all, a strong advertisement for the British game, despite some obvious shortfalls, and some clear signs of progress for the sports with both finals being streamed live for fans of the teams and the sport.