Derby Braves were labelled as one of the biggest underachievers of last season and that may be due to the high expectations we had for the club. They finished the 2011-12 regular season with a 6-2 record behind the dominant Lions and Aces, but despite holding the #1 seed, couldn’t go deep into the Challenge Trophy competition.
This season with the restructuring of the conferences the Braves have come into the Big North Western and utterly dominated, finishing the year with a 5-0 record and a points difference of 171. That’s despite conceding 54 points in three games against Staffordshire, Hallam and Lancaster.
With only three games in February against the Hawks, Sabres and Rams, the club look in good shape to secure the conference title, with their only real challenge coming from Sheffield Sabres. How far they can go into playoffs remains to be seen, but we certainly have high hopes again this year!
Hot on the heels of the Braves are the Sheffield Sabres, they are the second of our top three teams to take an unbeaten record into the winter break and sit just one game behind the league leaders.
After securing the Challenge Trophy last season, Sheffield have showed dominance on both sides of the ball early on, blowing away all those standing before them, scoring more than 23 points in each of their four games and conceding just 14 points in those games, including two shutouts.
But despite being 4-0, the Sabres do have a tougher run in that Derby, with games against local rivals Hallam Warriors and then Derby the week after, in a game which could ultimately decide the conference.
UCLan Rams have only managed to get two games played thus far, but currently occupy third spot in the Big North Western. They are undefeated, with a 2-0 record, after they were awarded a 1-0 win over Manchester Tyrants and defeated the Eagles 12-0.
Much has been expected from the Rams in their debut season in the league, but without seeing more games it is difficult to make an assessment. Personally I believe we won’t know how the Rams fit in with the teams around them until they face the likes of Derby and the Sabres. A rescheduled game against Hallam will leave the Rams with six games to play in the New Year, but do they have the fitness to sustain a good run and will they have enough left in the tank if they do reach the playoffs? Only time will tell.
The Manchester Tyrants began with that awarded game against the Rams and since then have gone from strength to strength; despite losing 23-8 against the Sabres the team competed well for large periods of the game. Convincing wins over Huddersfield 19-8 and Staffordshire 20-0 show the side’s pedigree, but game of the season thus far for the Tyrants, has to be the single point win over Liverpool Fury 14-13.
Manchester came from behind in that game to defeat their local rivals with two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. Liverpool did score with less than 30 seconds to go and tried to win the game with a 2 point conversion, but it failed.
The Tyrants are currently without a Head Coach after the departure of Hugh English, but could finish with a 6-2 record and a playoff appearance in the Challenge Trophy! Not bad for a team last season that struggled to field a team at points. Standing in between the club and the playoffs are local rivals MMU, Lancaster and Bangor.
Even at the half-way point in the season, this has already been one of the most successful seasons to date for Liverpool Fury. From a team that finished winless last season (0-5), they currently sit mid-table with a 2-2 record and have two very winnable games against Bangor and Lancaster to come in the New Year.
The club admits that massive financial problems last season were an unhealthy distraction for the players and that simply keeping the team going was a huge achievement. The question is can they sustain their good start, well I believe they can… but it’s all about how hard the squad are willing to train, both on and off the pitch.
Indeed if the Fury can finish 4-4 or better this should create a solid foundation for the club moving forward, especially with returning players and also with a view to recruitment.
Hallam Warriors (1-1) are a team in transition this season, but that doesn’t mean they should be written off. Their squad consists largely of rookies (80%) this year and although they have only played two games against Derby and Lancaster, that may have served as an advantage to give the squad more time to gel.
Speaking to the club they still believe that they can challenge for a spot in the playoffs and with potentially five games ahead of them between now and March and why not! The big game for Hallam comes against the Sabres on Sat 2nd February in the Steel Bowl, a game which could define both seasons for the clubs involved. Last season, the fixture was won Hallam by a single point (29-28) I’m sure the fixture won’t disappoint again this year!
Staffordshire Stallions opened their 20th anniversary season with a disappointing loss to the Derby Braves at The Stables, in fact the Stallions are yet to win at home so far this season, but are undefeated on the road after recording a 28-13 win over Liverpool Fury. That performance was followed by a 20-0 loss to Manchester Tyrants.
The Stallions were due to play the Sabres but lost that game due to the severe weather conditions in December, that game has be rescheduled and adds an extra game to an already congested four game schedule with fixtures against UCLan Rams, Bangor, Hallam and MMU. With the start to the year and considering the teams that are to come I believe Staffordshire should be aiming for a 4-4 finish, which would by no means, be a bad building block moving forward.
Huddersfield Hawks are still a team in transition, but have been one of the most interesting to watch from my point of view. The Hawks under the tutelage of second year Head Coach Greg Boyland have come on leaps and bounds. They come complete with their newly installed double-wing offence, after running a half i-form / spread offence last season, a system which seems to be working.
After a devastating 54-0 defeat away to the Sabres, the Hawks have improved week on week, holding the Tyrants to a 19-8 victory, before recording their first win of the season against Bangor in Week 3. Their final game of 2012 saw them lose by just two points to Liverpool Fury in a high-scoring 32-34 loss. This side should be doing better than their 1-3 record, but with the amount of rookies in the squad it should create a good platform moving forward.
Unfortunately Manchester Met’s season thus far peaked too soon, they opened the season with a slim 12-2 victory over Lancaster and since then have been unable to replicate that performance, losing to the league leaders Derby, UCLan Rams and Liverpool Fury.
Thus far, the Eagles have scored only 18 points in four games and conceded 111 points, not a formula for success and something which needs addressing. For the Eagles their big game comes on 3rd February as they face local rivals Manchester Tyrants, where the Eagles will be keen to avenge their 36-8 loss last season.
It took Bangor Muddogs until Week 3 to get up and running after a series of waterlogged pitches held up their season. Those postponed fixtures and losses against Huddersfield, Derby and Sheffield Sabres leave the Muddogs with a 0-3 record and work to do after the winter break if they are to avoid the conference’s wooden spoon.
Those rescheduled fixtures leave Bangor with five matches between now and March including some tough match-ups against the Warriors, Fury, Stallions, Tyrants and the Rams.
Finally Lancaster Bombers entered the winter break bottom of the Big North Western Conference with a 0-4 record, having scored 8 points in three games against the Eagles, Sabres and Hallam. That was before they faced league leaders Derby. That game finished Lancaster 36-68 Derby, in a scintillating high-scoring affair, which despite the loss Lancaster will take heart from.
Looking at the second half of the season, the tough games keep coming for Darren Carr’s side; as the Bombers begin with two away trips to the Rams ad Tyrants, before entertaining Huddersfield and this season surprise conference package the Liverpool Fury. Tough to see where that first win of the season will come for Lancaster.