Varsity Matches between Oxford and Cambridge are often steeped in history, with decades of closely fought out contests leaving one side just a couple of wins ahead of the other. The American Football Varsity is just two years old, but walking along the touchline at the Oxford Rugby Club on Saturday afternoon, it was clear that the passion and commitment involved was no less than one would expect to find at the 159th Boat Race or 131st Rugby Varsity Match. It was the Cambridge Pythons who emerged as 20-13 victors over the Oxford Lancers, to take a 1-0 lead in the series, after the first contest in 2012 ended as a 14-all draw. Highlights are below:
As the Oxford Rugby Club donned helmets and shoulder pads and went all stars and stripes for the day, the match was played out in typically British conditions; heavy winds and episodic hailstorms meant that this game was a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the NFL. Indeed, the opening exchanges were cagey, with both sides sizing each other up with solid defence breached only by sporadic darts without anything meaningful and the first quarter went scoreless.
It was the Pythons who broke the deadlock, with Ed Davenport slicing through the Oxford defence from 10 yards to touch-down to put his side 6-0 ahead. At this point the Tabs looked in control and some simple mistakes from the Lancers’ offence led to frustrations flaring up on the touchline. Jonathan Brooks-Bartlett was particularly animated both as a spectator and as a player and it was his dynamic running that dragged the home side back into the match.
Jack Culpin made the initial break, shrugging of Cambridge tacklers to take his side past half-way, before an excellently crafted Lancers move put Brooks-Bartlett away on the left but his dash for glory came up agonizingly short of the line.
But the man who is nicknamed “the Priest” got his house in order to bundle over from just yards out at the next down. Gareth Pease slotted through the extras to give Oxford a one point advantage at half-time.
Brooks-Bartlett, sporting a special red helmet apparently to let the opposition know not to go too hard on him, and captain Guy Edwards were thorns in the Pythons’ defence throughout. Led by their two playmakers, Oxford started the second-half strongly and some effective blocking and shoddy tackling allowed Brooks-Bartlett to streak down the left to score a 60-yarder, with the Tabs’ defence grasping at thin air.
[caption id="attachment_40689" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The Lancers team photo[/caption]
At 13-6 up, the Lancers were beginning to look assured, but as the game was beginning to lull, a floated 15 yard pass found Jack Tavener in the in-goal area to touch down and a 2-point conversion from Joseph Yarwood put the visitors into the lead.
From that point on the Pythons took control of the match, with the Lancers limited to mini-breaks but were too often let down by simple errors. Mid-way through the final quarter Yarwood drove over from a couple of yards to stretch Cambridge’s lead an effectively put the game to bed.
Lancers President Elliott Neale was philosophical about his side’s 20-13 defeat to Cambridge and was quick to praise the work ethic of both sides:
“It was a very close game, both teams tried very hard and we’re gutted to have lost. Our execution and tiny details that really make a difference let us down today but it was a brilliant performance all round from both teams.”
In a diverse team containing nine different nationalities from Slovakia to India, the tiny details were never likely to come easy within a squad where experience of competitive football is limited in itself.
‘We’ve got guys who played for a couple of years before they came here and are four-year veterans and we’ve got guys who’ve never even seen a game of American Football before the first training session, but we’re always happy to coach-up players regardless of how much knowledge they have of the game,” says Neale.
The Lancers are still finding their feet and were out-jousted on this occasion, but the desire and motivation for improvement is plain to see.
PHOTOS & VIDEO/Robert Wheeldon
By Michael Anderson
American Football made its Oxford University comeback last Sunday with a controlled scrimmage against the Kingston University Cougars. If the Oxford Lancers’ debut performance is anything to go by, the future looks more than promising for this club.
Like Oxford, Kingston has yet to earn a position in the British Universities American Football League (BUAFL), but in contrast they are heavily financially backed by their Athletic Union. Indeed, they outnumbered the Lancers two-to-one, and in many cases the Kingston players also boasted noticeable size advantages. The Cougars have already proven their competency in two games, including a win over the BNU Buccaneers, an established team who won 6 of their 8 games in 2010-2011 as a full member of the BUAFL.
Sunday’s initial exchanges saw no official score kept as the two teams played some Offence vs. Defence in simulated game situations. The tone for the most part was friendly but highly competitive, and both teams landed some punishing hits, one of which left Lancers’ Running Back Joel Charley requiring stitches. Oxford made several promising plays on both sides of the ball, although Kingston’s ability was particularly evident near the goal line, as they punched in four touchdowns to Oxford’s two.
The latter part of the day was played under game-like conditions, and in the fully competitive two quarters of play that followed though, the Lancers shone. The defence, led by relentless Linebacker Chase Campbell, did not allow the Cougars to get near the Oxford endzone. Driving them back on numerous occasions, the Lancers also forced and recovered a fumble, and snatched an interception courtesy of Cornerback Anthony Cooper. The punting unit consistently gave Oxford good field position, and as Cougars subbed in and out to rest up, dogged determination, solid tackling and disciplined coverage ensured that the tiny squad of just seventeen Lancers held their own.
The offense had its highs and lows throughout the session. The only score of the game came when a block by Cooper allowed Lancers’ Quarterback Ben Baker to roll right avoiding pressure and throw a perfect pass over the coverage to a sprinting Ryan Lynch, who ran into the endzone untouched thanks to some tenacious downfield blocking that sent pursuing Cougars sliding on their backs through the mud. Oxford could and probably should have scored again: American import Campbell was judged to have fallen just short of the endzone after making an impressive diving catch, and from one yard out the Lancers failed to capitalise. In testing cold and muddy conditions, the ferocity of Oxford’s Defensive Line and Linebackers compensated for their size disadvantage, and the ability of the Defensive Backs to slow the Cougars’ passing game served to keep Kingston off the scoreboard for the remainder of the day.
Oxford left the field cut, bruised and exhausted, but with their heads held high. The unofficial scoreline of 6-0 is a reflection on the brutal conditions under which the game was played; the shutout representative of the grit every Lancer showed in grinding out this victory. Kingston Head Coach Phil De Monte commented after the game, ‘You guys wowed me. Get some numbers, get in the league, it needs competitors just like you.’
Much of the credit for the Lancers’ first success must go to Team President Guy Edwards and Head Coach Carl Marshall, both of whom were previously involved with the Oxford Cavaliers. The programme requires more money, more players and more recognition to grow and develop. Dominant teams like the Birmingham Lions can and do have squads of over ninety fully kitted players. Their season opener against the NTU Renegades drew a crowd of over three thousand fans and coverage from Sky Sports. This may remain out of the Lancers’ reach for a while yet, but they have taken the first of many steps towards becoming a contender in one of the fastest growing sports in the UK.
American Football is one of the fastest growing sports in the UK – especially at University level. Oxford University and Oxford Brookes once shared a team, but league regulations changed and the ‘Cavaliers’ split into the Oxford Brookes Panthers, and the Oxford University Lancers.
Despite starting with meagre numbers of players, coaches and kit, the Lancers are quickly growing into a stable, committed team. After missing out the league competition since 2010, they intend to make a roaring return this year.
With plenty of newcomers expected to give American Football a go, the current crop of players will be quick to explain that it isn’t just ‘rugby with pads’.
Aside from being brilliant bop costumes, the pads don’t really do what most people seem to think. Nobody tackles you by your shoulder so they don’t really stop anything hurting. They just give you a significantly broader shoulder with which to tackle the opposition.
American football is perhaps the ultimate team game – every minute the ball is live, each member of the side is involved. It’s pretty much impossible for one man to carry the team, enlarged-shoulders or not!
Plays are carefully thought out, generally involving the bigger players forcing open a hole in the defence for a fast guy to run the ball though. Alternatively, the team can protect their quarterback as he looks to throw the ball.
In some ways it’s similar to rugby – gaining distance and scoring touchdowns are basic features of play. It differs in the ability to throw the ball forwards and block players who don’t have the ball.
But if you’re put off by the crunching challenges there is a non-contact option called ‘flag football’ which runs in Oxford.
Despite having a fairly poor (or incredibly good, whichever way you look at it) games played to social events ratio, the Lancers are getting moving and are on the lookout for new recruits. Training takes place at Botley Parks at 12pm on Sundays and to get a taste of the sport you can either sign up as a team or join one on the day.
Nearly everybody who plays American Football at university had never done so beforehand, so ignorance is no excuse!
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit http://the.ouafc.net/en, or search “Oxford Lancers AFC” on Facebook
Photo and Article both by Gareth Johnson