By Charlie Neal
For the second time in as many seasons, Head Coach Jonathan Rooney’s Durham Saints found themselves in the BUCS American Football National Final.
Finishing the regular season undefeated, and motivated by last year’s heartbreaking final defeat to Stirling, the Saints refused to accept defeat on this occasion.
Durham gained their place in the National Championship game following an unusual series of events.
The Saints were awarded their first walkover win over contenders Portsmouth, who were unable to travel to Maiden Castle for their first-round fixture. They were then awarded their second walkover victory in their match against Leeds since the fixture was deemed unplayable due to adverse weather conditions.
Despite being favourites over both Portsmouth and Leeds, the Saints, therefore, found themselves in the National Final without having played a 2018 playoff game.
Rested and refreshed, they travelled to the Sixways Stadium in Worcestershire, home of the Worcester Warriors rugby team, to play their ninth and final game of the year.
Speaking with The Podyum pre-game, Head Coach Jonathan Rooney said: “We are big, we are bold, and we are excited. This time, the nerves have gone, and we’re looking to express ourselves.”
The teams had battled twice during the regular season, with the Saints overcoming the Braves on both occasions. Most recently, the Saints travelled to Derby and edged out a 10-7 victory in snowy January conditions.
Club President Joe Partington said: “We came into the game knowing that if we executed the game plan perfectly, we would be National Champions at the final whistle.”
The BUCS National Final commenced, and there was little to separate the two teams. Both sides exchanged possession, but neither made a serious push for points in the first quarter.
But following a series of exceptional carries from running back Devan Anderson and quarterback Eric Poindexter, who have been a formidable duo throughout the regular season, the Saints drew first blood. Jacob Shotton split the uprights for the three-point field goal, handing Durham the lead for the first time in the game.
On the Derby kick-return which followed, the Braves fumbled the ball and the Saints recovered possession. The Durham offensive unit had a great opportunity to extend their lead minutes before the halfway mark, and despite an excellent 30-yard reception by tight end Isaiah Pinson, they were unable to convert. The Saints carried their 3-0 advantage into the second half.
The Saints had the advantage of receiving the ball at the start of the second half, and so Poindexter’s offensive unit went straight to work.
On the team’s first offensive drive of the half, veteran wide receiver Donovan Swanepoel caught a Poindexter dart in the far side of the end zone, extending Durham’s lead to 10-0 following the conversion by Shotton.
“We ended the first half with a slender advantage but, throughout the second, the difference in quality between the two teams started to show,” said Partington.
The quality Durham have displayed throughout the regular season continued into the fourth quarter, with Shotton catching a 50-yard pass from Poindexter to bring the Saints within 20 yards of the Braves’ end zone.
Durham’s sophomore running back Samuel Oram-Jones then waltzed into the Derby end zone for what would be Durham’s final touchdown of the day, ending their opponents’ dreams of a comeback. The score extended the Saints lead to 17-0 following the Shotton conversion.
The Braves, however, responded late in the game with a cancellation tally of their own, bringing the final score to 17-6.
“The thought of last year’s devastating result has driven everybody to succeed this year,” Partington said. “Hearing the final whistle on this occasion was incredible.”
The National Final victory rounded off a perfect, undefeated season, and it marked the first time the Saints have won the National Championship in BUCS history.
Photograph: Craig Thomas, Replay Images