In 2017 the pinnacle of Britball competition had thrown up something different, a non-all London final. At the impressive Sixways Stadium in Worcester, all was set for a battle between the best of the North and the best of the South, Tamworth Phoenix versus London Blitz. Although the Phoenix had not lost a regular season game for two years, and had despatched the reigning champion London Warriors in the play-off semi-final, for most people, they were coming in to the game as underdogs. The Blitz had the track record of appearing in the final, and had beaten the Warriors twice in the regular season, (they had even beaten the Phoenix in last years play-offs) clearly they knew how to get the job done. What they didn’t know, was how determined Tamworth were to rise up and take the title. As kick-off time approached, the travelling Tamworth fans were creating an inferno of noise behind the Blitz side-line, a factor that would definitely have an impact on the game. The excellent Onside Productions were broadcasting the showpiece live, and in conjunction with the media team at Double Coverage, they previewed every angle in the build up to the game. The excitement and anticipation was high, all was set for a feast of football, and the teams weren’t about to disappoint the expectant crowd as they took to the field.
Tamworth would receive the ball to start the game with Will Hussey making good ground. The opening drive gave us an indication of what to expect, the Blitz defence would be aggressive, and the Phoenix quarterback, Pat Daley, would showcase his athletic talent to the delight of the watching masses. With his receiving options covered, Daley took off on a 30 yard jaunt. Elliot Walters darted for a first down to keep the chains moving, and with Tamworth in the red zone, Daley raced in for the first score of the day. The dependable Lenkowski converted the PAT and it was first blood to the Phoenix 7-0. The teams then exchanged punts as London tried to establish their ground game behind the running of Toonga. The Phoenix’s swarming defence adjusted and closed off the running lanes, forcing the Blitz quarterback, Joe Thompson to go to the air, which he did to great effect, connecting with GB receiver Jack Daley (the brother of the Phoenix’s QB) who was stopped at the Tamworth six-yard line. Two plays later, Toonga went around the right end to dive into the endzone. The PAT was good and it was all square, 7-7. It was shaping up to be a heavyweight battle. The Phoenix came straight back, keyed by a good return by running back Deji Ali, offensive co-ordinator Dan Smith was loading the bullets for Daley to fire, mixing it up with runs from Adam Hope and Walters, the first quarter closed out with a good grab by James Hossack across the middle for a first down.
Tamworth started the second quarter on their own 45, Walters bagged twenty yards on a screen, and Daley sneaked for another five. Then came the play of the game! on what looked to be a broken play Daley weaved his way through the London defence, breaking and evading eight tackles, before finding his way into the endzone! The crowd lapped it up and Lenkowski added the extra point, 14-7 Phoenix. The momentum was now with Tamworth who forced the Blitz to punt after a big sack by defensive lineman Will Stone. The Phoenix stable of running backs were all used to good effect with Ali, Hope Walters and Reid all making good gains. Hussey got on the end of a Daley pass to place Tamworth inside the twenty, but some staunch defending by the Blitz saw the field goal unit enter the field. Alex Lenkowski is a reliable elite level kicker, and slotted the ball through the posts to edge the lead to 17-7. The two minute warning was then called, giving London little time to get back in the game, but come back they did, with Thompson throwing the perfect arc for Kyle Jervier to make the grab and dash in for the touchdown. With the extra point being made the teams would go in at the half with the score sitting at 17-14 Phoenix. London clearly had a size advantage in the trenches, but Jason Scott’s “Havoc” defence, and Dan Smith’s “Inferno” offence had executed with greater speed.
The Blitz had ended the first half with a morale boosting score, and they picked up where they had left off as the third quarter got underway. London received the kick-off and Thompson was calling plays in quick succession, making it hard for the Phoenix to make adjustments on defence. Toonga ripped off a 25 yard run, followed by a keeper by Thompson, who then found Linley on a swing pass, he evaded a would be tackler and just managed to break the plane of the goal-line before hurtling out of bounds. Daley tacked on the extra point, and London had the lead for the first-time 21-17. It was time for the Phoenix to step up, and that included the “twelfth man” in the stands. It was three and out for Tamworth though, so the Blitz were back in possession. Powerback Gabriel Quartey barrelled his way for some big yards, and London were knocking on the door at the Phoenix three yard line. With the Tamworth fans roaring on their defence Thompson was struggling to make himself heard, a penalty for a chop block and a pass broken up in the endzone by Anthony Naughton, combined to force London into a field goal attempt, but the kick sailed wide. The Phoenix had dodged a bullet, and now had the chance to get themselves back in front. Ben Burslem did well to hold onto a Daley pass, despite a vicious hit, and in a key moment, some over aggressive defence by the Blitz led to two fifteen yard penalties on the same play, giving Tamworth excellent field position. Daley aired it out down the left side-line, and despite blanket coverage, Hussey came up with the catch and the score. Lenkowski delivered the extra point, and the Phoenix now had a slender lead 24-21. Penalties were costing London dear. Husbands had a good return, but big hits by Ben Davies and Will Stone for Tamworth forced the Blitz punt. Daley was now back at the controls for the Phoenix, and engineered some positive yardage, but then rolling out under pressure, he was intercepted by Eddie Cheadle who returned the ball to the Phoenix 20 yard line. On the next play Thompson found Alex Laird who caught the pass in traffic and he went in for the score, the Blitz had regained the lead in the closing seconds of the third quarter, but could they hold on? Lenkowski caught the short kick and made it to the Tamworth 37 before being stopped. The Phoenix couldn’t move the ball consistently and were forced to punt, giving the ball back to London to start the final quarter.
There were 15 minutes of game time left and it was balanced on a knife edge. The Blitz had to punt the ball away giving Daley another chance to work his magic. Passes to the reliable Burslem combined with a keeper play had the Phoenix sat at the London six yard line, with the endzone seemingly at their mercy. But not for the first time the Blitz defence toughed it out, and Tamworth chose the certainty of the Lenkowski field goal nudging the score to 28-27 London. Following the kick-off the Blitz were sat at their own ten yard line, with 8.46 left to cement the win. Thompson took the snap and spun to his right tossing a pass into the flats, the action seemed to go into slow motion as Phoenix linebacker Ben Davies locked onto the flight of the ball, undercut the receiver, made the catch and strode in for the pick six score! The Tamworth sideline erupted. Lenkowski added the extra point, and the Phoenix were now back in front 34-28.
It was now or never for the Blitz who returned to their power running game, Toonga going for two big gains in succession, but they couldn’t sustain their progress and had to kick it away. It would now be about clock control for the Phoenix who kept it on the ground with Walters and Hope. A penalty against the Blitz and a crucial first down run by Walters, ate chunks out of the clock. London had spent all their time-outs and would need a big play if they were to snatch it at the death. Tamworth punted the ball to London with twenty seconds left. Thompson found Jack Daley who caught the pass for a thirty yard gain before cleverly stepping out of bounds. The Blitz would have one last attempt, but this time, Thompson’s Hail Mary fell to the ground and with that, the Phoenix were Britbowl XXXI Champions!
Some would say the win had been the culmination of a twelve game undefeated season for Tamworth, but in truth it was the final destination on a three year journey. In 2014 when James Hossock became president and Martin Hilton took the reins as head coach the Phoenix were struggling for players, between them they laid out a plan to build the programme, the central tenet of which, would be the “Phamily” ethos, with all involved pulling for each other. Clearly it was an attractive proposition and the players, coaches and supporters all bought into it, leading them to where they are now, the new British Champions.
In the aftermath of the game I spoke to some key individuals, firstly the “heartbeat” of the Tamworth defence, tackle Stephen Gregory. “The final was an amazing game to play in and an awesome experience. We believed in each other on all sides of the ball and knew all the hard work we put in prior to this game would help us achieve great success. Can’t thank the fans enough, they were phenomenal. You really have to be part of this team to understand what we are about”.
Hossack was understandably full of emotion “Winning this today, validates everything we’ve been striving to achieve, It’s hard to take it all in really. I’m so proud of what we as a group have done, but we are not finished yet, we are very much, just getting started”
Offensive co-ordinator Dan Smith was delighted with his players efforts “It was a tough game against a very talented blitz defence. Our guys managed to keep battling though, which allowed us to make enough explosive plays to put us into a position to win the game”
Blitz veteran O lineman Matt Meyer was gracious in defeat “Obviously it really hurts right now to be so close but not get the win. The team worked extremely hard this year with a lot of new faces and younger guys making huge steps forward to help us win our conference for the first time in a few years. The team feels closer and stronger than it has for a few years with a great core of young athletes and I hope we can continue to make strides towards another championship. But all credit to Tamworth they competed really hard and you could tell how much they wanted it. Credit especially to Pat Daley he was fantastic and I hope to see him involved with the GB team really soon”.
Head Coach Hilton reflected on what his players had accomplished “I’m so proud of the team and what we’ve achieved today. The game was a battle between two great teams and the way the lead kept changing hands made for a brilliant game to watch. There were some real standout performances from key players but the constant drive of the whole team from first whistle to last was the best part. One of the biggest parts of the day was the huge numbers of supporters that came to cheer us on and the noise they made really helped and inspired us. This team has always been about working hard together and every aspect – offense, defense, special teams and supporters – were at their best today, and that’s why we’re here as champions now. We’ll celebrate this win, the undefeated season and everything we’ve achieved for a little while, but I know the guys on the team. They’ll start thinking about next season soon enough and how they can improve. We’ve always talked about taking each step at a time and improving what we do and we can’t afford to change that mentality. The Blitz and Warriors will be back and keen to regain the title, plus the Premier North is full of ambitious clubs that are trying to get better too, so we can’t rest. We’ll always be looking to improve and challenge what we do, so we can have more of the days like today”.
Due to his spectacular heroics, Pat Daley was a popular and somewhat inevitable choice as game MVP.
Britbowl XXXI had been a great advert for the game, attracting viewers from all over the world via the live stream, but it was the crowd in the stadium that created a special atmosphere. Whatever way you looked at it, be it the Daley brothers on opposite teams, the fanatical Phoenix supporters, or the wider Britball community coming together, with Tamworth taking the title, it truly was a “Phamily Affair”.