Lions make history in style
Birmingham Lions undertook a massive challenge last weekend when they pitched up in France for a 9-aside game against Les Sparkles de Villeneueve St Georges, Football Américain Féminin.
Having never played this format of the game and only having played one season of 5-aside football, the Lions opted to make history by becoming the first British women’s club side to take on a European club, on European soil and at 9s. “After last October’s recruitment drive we saw our squad numbers almost double” offered Head Coach Jamie Kilby, “…we then asked ourselves – knowing we didn’t want to play flag football [at BAFA’s Opal Series in November] – how do we keep these women engaged until Sapphire tackle football starts in February.”
The answer was simple: play a format that gets more players on the pitch – 9s; and go and play against someone that can accommodate that – well, unfortunately that wasn’t anyone in the UK (to date), so Europe was next considered. Les Sparkles Club President Sarah Riahi had approached the Lions early last year but the Lions’ hadn’t been ready, but with numbers growing, experience on-board and the rookies progressing well, a January date was discussed, considered and agreed upon and the game was on.
Arriving in Villeneuves St Georges late Friday evening the players briefly greeted their accommodation before hitting the hay ahead of an 8am start and game-day preparations. An early Saturday morning walk-through readied the team mentally and before they knew it they were on the coach and onwards to the Stade Gérard Roussel for the game. Nerves and excitement were the order of the day, but with a number of Great Britain internationals amongst the ranks a quiet confidence underpinned the dressing room.
Following Head Coach Jamie Kilby’s announcement of the games’ captains – confirmed as Quarterback Jo Kilby, Safety Nena Killick, Linebacker Afia Law and Receiver Hannah Pye – kick-off followed; the Lions couldn’t have hoped for a better start when Pye received Les Sparkles first announcement with a decisive response – a 75yd touchdown return, converted for 2pts by Fullback Antoinette Morgan’s bullocking run.
Defensive sets were brief as pressure up front, courtesy of D-liners Aimee Cottingham and Katie Davenport, harried our hosts repeatedly, turnovers ensued, which simply put the ball back into the offense’s fully-firing hands to convert. Scores came quickly as Running Back/Slot Receiver Ruth Matta stole yards on the ground and in the air and Kilby sneaked to grab a goal-line score. With the Lions’ defense returning to the field, too much power and aggression at first and second level proved too high a peak to climb for our shell-shocked hosts – Law continuing to set the tone, alongside Linebacker-Defensive End Laura Moore, who between them served Les Sparkles 5 tackles (and 3 assists) for a combined loss of 15yds.
Back on the field the offense again looked to dominate – the offensive line-up of guards Michelle Gwynne, Kiara Vincent and Centre Polly Danks, with rotational support from Elisha Huxtable and Fran Collingswood – moving mountains to open up the holes for Matta to again feature. The introduction of cavalry Fullbacks Emelie Taylor and Caren Goodman ground out subsequent hard yards to lay the foundations for the switch-up to the passing game and rookie Evie Harrison’s 60yd touchdown reception; a break-away score from Kilby, outpacing the cover for her second rushing touchdown, concluded a very productive first half’s proceedings (46-0).
With little threat coming from Les Sparkles passing game the Lions’ Defensive Backs could have been found guilty of struggling to feature, however when the hosts wider run game started to gain traction secure tackles around the fringes from Killick and Cornerback Nancy Stone (along with Ends’ Becky Williams and Jemma Nixon offering inside support) were both needed and without fail firmly delivered. Adding further insult to injury the DBs gathered again for another assault and this time it was delivered through somewhat of a Stone speciality, her stripping of the ball putting the offense back in charge and within minutes Morgan had collected her maiden touchdown courtesy of a punishing 5yd carry.
Les Sparkles, tiring, but far from giving up, rallied, and with much conviction registered their first points of the game – an impressive 35yd sprint by Runnning Back Ashley Hedreville paying dividends. Affronted almost, the Lions’ defense stepped right back up, Linebackers Phoebe Schecter and Alice-Mary Smith finishing the game as they’d started it, the former topping the tackle count the latter coming a close (joint) second in mopping up all that their opposotion could throw at them. With time running out the tag-team between units continued and with just enough on the clock to get away a final pass, rookie Receiver Laura Thompson-Stevens lost her defender to end up wide-open in the end-zone, Kilby’s pass found her and Thompson-Stevens soft hands sealed the game with a sure catch. Final score: 58-8.
Our very many thanks to the whole squad, coaches and support staff that travelled, to photographer Garry Charles for his super pictures, Birmingham University and Director of Football Wayne Hill, the British American Football Association and the Fédération Française de Football Américain also for their sanction and support in making this happen; to Les Sparkles, we say thank you for your hospitality and arranging our accommodation (and a kind courtesy night’s stay) and to Sarah Riahi in particular, may we extend a special thanks for being available at every turn to answer questions and queries whilst we planned this very special trip.
Finally, to all the players – for conducting yourselves with professionalism, for doing yourselves proud on the pitch and bringing home the result – well done!
Image courtesy of, and with thanks to, MyLonelyTreeMedia and Garry Charles Photography.