Sapphire a Sweet Success‏

Sapphire a Sweet Success‏

One of the Lions objectives at the start of the 2014/15 season was to push the boat, move the chains, break new boundaries…whatever the cliché…what we wanted to do was push on. We did that in a number of ways, our sojourn to France being one, but our bread and butter was to do so domestically, with BAFA’s club competition, the Sapphire Series: enter, compete, win, but this time with two teams in action. That we managed to achieve what we set out to do, in such fine form, was an appreciated bonus for all those involved with Birmingham Football.

It started out week one, right back in February when the A or North team, and the B/South/Development side, went to Derby University and Royal Holloway (London University) respectively, for first forays. Unfortunately for the North, Sandwell Steelers were unable to compete, so instead of two fixtures they matched up with debutante’s Manchester Titans for a single shot at the opening round. Some good athletes belong to the team in blue but it’s probably fair to say, after their first competitive outing with Derby’s Braves earlier in the day, a rude-awakening was subsequently received upon clashing with the Lions. The defending champions were unforgiving, untouchable and unremitting and as such racked up a sobering 73-0 score-line.

Meanwhile in the South, the B team had a similar outing against Solent-Iceni’s mash-up squad, a convincing 54-8 win boosting confidence and ambition before last year’s runners-up, Hertfordshire Tornadoes, brought them down to earth with a bump and a 58-6 loss to boot.

Ahead of Round 2, two weeks were given for the teams to get back to the drawing board and improve, and how the practice told; Lions’ B hit the ground running, and whilst they suffered a narrow loss to a promising London Warriors side (15-8) they looked good on their adjustments; another outing against Solent proved fruitful (40-0) to give the team a W2, L2 record and third place in the Southern Conference.

The North side meanwhile, without Defensive Coordinator James ‘Brian’ Branagh for the day, took to the field knowing the pressure was on. Everyone wants to upset the apple-cart, and in the Women’s domestic game, without arrogance, we recognise that our scalp is the most coveted, that being the case Edinburgh’s rookie Wolves were the first (and only) team to draw blood when a mis-communication in assignments allowed their wing-back to scamper away. Knocked but not rocked, the Lions handle pressure (and expectation) well and following a moment’s recollection they then went about unloading a barrage of scores to leave the ladies in red reeling (60-6). Derby were next up and whilst the Lions 41-0 score-line flattered this was a vastly-improved Braves outfit that oft threatened.

On to Round 3 and a return fixture against Herts’ Tornadoes. Whilst the Lions were blown away in Round 1, some 4 weeks later the B team – in beefing up their defense, learning to play smarter and opening up their offense a little more – cut a 58-6 lesson into a 25-06 adjournment. Herts’ featuring four GB players, earned their win, but the Lions had made their mark, and in the process of toughening up and learning on the go, they were now ready to step it up and from this point forward they never lost another game. A hard-fought win against a prickly Royal Holloway (21-13) concluded proceedings to see the South side finish the regular season: P6, W3 (F134, A119). For this predominantly rookie outfit, it was now on to Finals Day, where they would compete for their national ranking.

Prior to this however the Lions A team had to see off Steelers’ Sandwell and Teesside. Despite stern resistance this was eventually done courtesy of emphatic 96 and 59 points to nil victories, thereby crowning the Lions’ Northern Conference Champions, and priming them as the number one favourites going into the play-offs (P6, W6, F319, A6).

And so to Derby University, 4th April 2015. A volley of games across the Sapphire Series’ concluding day were split into two competitions, teams placed 1st – 6th (from the regular season) playing for the national title, teams placed 7th – 14th playing for final national rankings – the Lions had a team in both camps. The B team would face off against Sandwell Steelers initially, and from there other results would carve their forward momentum and so to their opposition. Fortunately a strong win was yielded from the B team’s first encounter, the Lions’ ground and aerial threats delivering returns, whilst a trick play, albeit a slick one from the Steelers, registering their only score of the game (19-6).

Next up, Edinburgh’s Wolves. A tricky proposition for the A team back in February, Scotland’s first ladies made the Lions B team work for every point, yard and inch in an extremely close encounter that ended 6-2. This lead them on to the ranking game with the highest spoils, a final game to secure ‘7th best team in the country’ status – standing in their way, Manchester’s Titans. A hum-dinger game, which went back and forth several times, saw the Lions take and hold a lead which they then refused to relinquish, a concluding 24-18 score-line eventually sealing the deal and a season of outstanding achievement.

A great many players were borne and forged in the fire of ‘toughing it out’ – without the core of the Lions’ more established players around them (on game days at least) – it was a case of stand up and be counted, and they did that accordingly. Lead by some older heads, vitalised and complimented by young and enthusiastic dynamos, with a coaching staff that lived and breathed every minute of their charges’ campaign, the objective to enter, compete, win with two teams, was so far a resolute success. The only question now was could the A team finish what their team-mates had started, bringing home the title by going undefeated on the day.

First up for the A team was a return outing against Teesside’s Steelers. The Lions had done a job on the North-East outfit some four or five weeks earlier and although keen to redress the balance, the Lions, with a full squad available to them, were in no mood for giving up ground. Punishing carries, tackles and scores, proved too damaging, and in taking a strangle-hold quickly Teesside were never really able to kick off (46-0). Up next was London’s Warriors, a team the A team had not yet faced. Their results in the regular season spoke of a stingy defense and an efficient offense, running Herts close and scoring freely at times, so in acknowledgment the Lions took nothing for granted – they went to work from the off and never let up. A physical encounter was just what the Lions wanted and with the Warriors offering that, it brought the Lions right up to game-temperature ahead of the final, which they had now reached (W32-0). The match-up everyone was waiting for – North vs South Conference Champions – materialised when Herts, squeezed into the final berth, courtesy of a slim win against Leeds Carnegie.

In a replay of last year’s final this time around the Lions were a far better side (…in 2014 this same team had only 3mths football experience when they won their first title…) and whilst they were forced to operate off a shortened game-clock (due to other proceedings having run over) the defending champions came out fighting, fierce and ferocious, and refused to take a backward step throughout. Herts’ offense, which had racked up 260 points across the course of the regular season, experienced its first shutout and the Lions, in claiming 26 unanswered points, ended the game as a contest well before the final whistle. With a blend of youth and experience amongst Hertfordshire’s ranks, the Tornadoes featured well but ultimately were simply outclassed and outgunned, that being said this team have some golden talent amongst their ranks and as such they’ll be a more mature outfit come Sapphire 2016, making season three, already, an exciting proposition…next season’s objectives had better be refreshed accordingly.

…in the meantime however, well done Lions #NationalChampionsAgain #ObjectivesAchieved.

BAFA Sapphire Series National Champions 2015