Reigning champs eye upcoming Series

Reigning champs eye upcoming Series

In less than two weeks time the Lions will attempt to secure BAFA’s Sapphire Series British championship title for an unprecedented third year in a row. Standing in their way four other teams who will also be competing for the first time in a newly introduced (7v7) format of the game over four tournament dates, starting February 27th, running through to April 16th 2016.

Playing alongside Birmingham, the Derby Braves, Manchester Titans, Leeds Carnegie and Hertfordshire’s Tornadoes will all be vying to depth-charge Birmingham’s unbeaten record, which currently stretches back two years, to February 8th 2014. “It’s going to be very challenging” commented club captain, Jo Kilby “our fellow Division 1 competitors all know what they’re doing, all have Great Britain internationals amongst their ranks and have all progressed visibly over the last couple of seasons.”

The new version of the game moves teams forward from last year’s 5v5 format, to include three offensive linemen and the option to utilise 2 and 3 man defensive fronts, Tight Ends and multiple-blitz manoeuvres, moving the game more towards the 11s version, to which the domestic women’s game ultimately aspires.

“It’s good to be moving onwards with the game” added Lions’ Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator, Jamie Kilby, “we have a lot of girls with [international] 11s experience now and this gives them an opportunity to express themselves whilst still continuing to learn in a format that challenges them as players, as units and as a team. It’s also great to be one team again after splitting in to two for last years’ 5s season.”

We caught up with some of the team – coaches, returners and rookies alike – to see how they’re feeling about the upcoming Series, their expectations and considerations, as well as who the movers and shakers might well be:

What are you looking forward to the most?

Mena Fombo (DL, Rookie): “I’m most excited about just having the opportunity to play football. It’s been a long time coming – my dream since I was 10 years old – but the opportunities weren’t around in the UK for women back then, so I ended up taking up rugby as the next closest thing! I eventually took a trip to Houston back in 2012 to try out for a team but moving over there for a season wasn’t practical in the end. Jump forward 4 years and nipping down the road from Bristol to Birmingham every week for pre-season to train with the Lions for me has been an honour. I’ve received a great welcome to the Pride, the coaching set up has been excellent and I’m now literally ‘roaring’ to get on the field to make every hit count.”

How will this season be different to last season?

Ruth Matta (RB, Returner): “Apart from the obvious format change, this season will be different in many ways, whilst the continued progress of all the teams in playing the game will be evident we’ll also be seeing players and teams that have advanced in their learning and understanding of the game. What teams were like last season will also be no real reflection of how they’ll be this season, this all bolstered by the recruitment of rookies and an enhancement or change in skill-mix across the teams. The ability of our rookies will definitely change the dynamic of our squad which I’m sure will be echoed across teams. These unknown quantities are something to be wary of but, equally, are exciting for the development of the women’s game.”

What challenges will you and the team be setting for yourselves this season?

Phoebe Schecter (LB, Returner): “Our ultimate challenge will be to try and retain our national title. However, the biggest challenge we’ll actually face will be in getting to grips with playing 7s, and to see how the other teams fare with this as well. This year, more than ever, everyone is fair game and whilst as a defense we’d love to shut teams out, realistically, whilst we find our feet with seven on the field, that may not be as easy as we might think.”

What have you found most challenging thus far in preparing for the Sapphire Series?

Kim Tsiga (WR, Rookie): “I would say transitioning from football [soccer] has been the hardest challenge: appreciating the difference in the approach taken to game-play, learning the game itself and getting to grips with contact. So, for example, with football it’s crucial for me to understand each position and the role assigned to me in order to maximise the success of the play whilst also remaining alert to what the defense are doing, whereas in ‘soccer’ there is more free play within my role, allowing more room for error but also rectification.

Where and who is the challenge going to come from this season?

Jo Kilby (QB, Returner): “Herts are always ones to watch, they’ll have recruited well as always and they’ve a significant coaching pedigree to draw from; as for players, I’m a fan of Derby’s Monica Lewinska, a tough, abrasive player who has a great work-rate, we’ll need to work hard to contain her but a lot will depend on how quickly team’s Offensive and Defensive Lines can get themselves sorted, gel and operate, and this applies to us as much as any other team. Other than that I hope we’ll give a good account of ourselves, we have some great rookies to get on the field and I’m excited to see what the Lions can do as a collective this season.”

What will be the difference playing as one team this season (as opposed to an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ team last year)?

Helen Gent (DB, Returner): “The main thing is that our team spirit will be even stronger as we’ve practised as one team from the start of the season and now we’ll be playing as one too. Last year the only opportunity for both teams to be together was in the final tournament, so for us to be able to play the tournaments as one from the beginning will be great, and can only increase our cohesiveness and pride as a team.”

What are the challenges in coaching a 7s team?

James Branagh (DC): “First up it’s great to see BAFA pushing forward and bringing this improved version of the game to domestic women’s competition, that being said, this format, as “a first”, means there’s very little in the way of knowledge out there on the game, formats, schemes and styles of play. From a defensive perspective its very difficult to know what types of offense we’re likely to face and to plan our strategies accordingly – however that in itself is half the fun of the season ahead and as such the first tournament is certainly going to be an interesting one.”

It certainly will be. Good luck to all those participating and may the best team win.

Image with thanks to Garry Charles Photography and © MyLonelyTreeMedia.

Birmingham Lions' Defensive Lineman, Mena Fombo