A bold and brave second half from the Tamworth Phoenix wasn’t enough in the Northern European Champions League, as the home team fell 34-14 to the visiting Carlstad Crusaders in their first ever fixture at Pack Meadow.
The Phoenix were under no illusions to the scale of the task that faced them on Saturday; the Crusaders had won the Swedish Championship for eight consecutive seasons, and had won numerous European Champions League trophies. They had professional players from Sweden and America within their ranks, and had already jumped out to a huge lead in their domestic league.
The scoring stuck to the form book, with the visitors that drawing first blood. An onside kick was recovered, and despite a tenacious Tamworth defense, the Crusaders running back Christian Forsman punched the ball in from close range to cap an eight play 59 yard drive.
Tamworth struck back almost immediately, a 39 yard pass down the right sideline was hauled in by Great Britain receiver Ben Burslem to bring the Phoenix within ten yards of the endzone. Back-to-back rushing plays brought up third down before Burslem broke through on a sweep play – following the blocks of James Hossack and Jack Verling – to tie the score.
The Crusaders struck back at the end of the first period, with a 79 yard drive culminating in a 22 yard field goal giving them the edge at the break.
Carlstad dominated the second quarter, as the high powered offense took control of the game. Talismanic quarterback Philip Juhlin masterminded three drives that ended in two touchdown passes to Jacob Dahre and a further three-point field goal. Juhlin, the Swedish international Quarterback, was instrumental in keeping drives alive with the quick game, as well as his fast thinking which enabled him to escape the pocket and scramble for some key first downs.
Phoenix Head Coach Jason Scott was full of praise for the opposing offense; “whenever you play international opposition, you expect a step-up in quality, but we faced a truly elite quarterback in Juhlin today. He ran the offense like clockwork, and found all of his open targets which forced us to adjust time and time again. Obviously, whenever you have a target as big and talented as Dahre, it makes things very tough”
With the score sitting at 28-7, Tamworth launched a drive of their own; Pat Daley finding Finley Old on an out-breaking route for ten yards; before he broke off two back-to-back Qb scrambles which kept the drive alive. A pin point ten yard pass to Burslem had the Phoenix knocking on the door, but disaster struck on third down. Daley was flushed to his right, and forced a pass into double coverage, where American import Julius Rucker intercepted it, and took it back 94 yards to extend the score to 34-7.
“Rucker is a great talent” Scott added, “We cannot afford to make mistakes like that against an elite Defensive Back – those sort of throws often result in touchdowns in the British League, but the closing speed of athletes like that is next level”
Facing a seemingly insurmountable task against the consensus 7th best team in Europe, the Phoenix didn’t let their heads drop and fought their way back into the encounter. The offense struggled to move the ball after the break, but a tenacious defense had found their second wind, and knocked the Crusaders back. A fourth down attempt was unsuccessful and the Phoenix mounted their own drive from deep in their own territory.
Daley opened the drive with a fumbled snap, but was able to wriggle free and find eight yards down the side line. Good running from Elliot Walters and Ben Burslem set up passes to Verling and Old to move the chains. Faced with a goal-to-go situation on the nine yard line, Daley pump faked to the right, before scrambling to his left and dove into the end zone for the score.
The Phoenix had other chances to score again; Daley’s fade pass just escaping Verling, before a deep ball to Huxtable was narrowly overthrown with the receiver alone and uncovered in the end zone.
Despite the loss, Phoenix Head Coach Jason Scott was upbeat about the contest; “we stood toe-to-toe with one of the best sides in Europe for most of the game; but as the previous game against Copenhagen, our lack of discipline and focus let us down.”
“We actually outgained them on offense, and rushed for more yards, but it was the ‘hidden’ yardage in kick returns and penalties that really hurt us. Only once did we force Carlstad to drive for more than 60 yards, and we gifted them good field position too many times.”
“Pat (Daley) was excellent with his feet, and Ben Burslem is showing why he is worthy of the GB caps he earned last year. I was really impressed with his route running, his rushing and blocking – he had a complete game, and I’m excited to see how he attacks the rest of the season”
“Defensively Will Stone was the playmaker we knew he is, with the entire defensive secondary coping with a physically imposing set of receivers very well. Dan Hampton continues to turn-in excellent performances, and is developing into a leader on this defense.”
“It’s a great learning experience for the squad, and we’ll take the lessons learned into the last European game against Oslo in early June.”
Scott was upbeat about the performances from many of the young players, and is looking forward to the return of the domestic season in the coming weeks.
“Dan Raeburn and James Ramsay were fantastic when they got on the field; both are showing glimpses of how good they can be. Nelson Charles-Nwufoh was everywhere on the defense, and Finley Old showed his obvious quality in the passing game. With young talent contributing, it’s easy to be optimistic about the season from here.”
“We play Merseyside on the road next week, which will be another physical encounter. They have been runners-up in the Northern Conference for the past two seasons, and always ask lots of questions of us on Offense, Defense and Special Teams.”
“We expect to welcome back some players who were unavailable for Carlstad, and hopefully we’ll be able to get some developing players some more game time.”