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Exiles Women’s 2019 Review

Kent Exiles Women’s Team 2019 Review
By Head Coach Carl Alexis

It is almost a year since we embarked upon our second season in the Sapphire league and between then and now our team has changed tremendously. With the leagues intention of progressing the Women’s game, the decision was taken to move all teams to playing 7 a-side. A knock-on effect of this was to require all teams to register a minimum of 18 players. This decision was to cause a few established teams to fall to the wayside as some had already struggled to register the 12 players needed to play 5 a-side. Determined that this fate would not befall us we (coaches, players and committee) recruited hard and filled our roster and with the addition of two new coaches (Rob Mitchell and David Pester) we were all set for the season.

Our first tournament in early December pit us against our old adversaries the Oxford Saints and even though we had won and lost to them before we were not as prepared as we had thought we were and the Saints made us painfully aware of this. However the Exiles ‘never say die’ attitude shone through and although we lost to Oxford we picked ourselves up and got the win in our second game of the day against the Cardiff Valkyries. The win, against a team we had not faced before was well deserved but injuries in the game cost us dearly; Dory dislocated and tore tendons in her hand, Michelle dislocated a finger and we lost Nai for the season to a severe knee injury. When added to the players that we had already lost in the pre-season (veteran Sophie and rookie Kelly both to hand injuries) we were left with a depleted squad but not one of a depleted spirit.

Our next tournament sent us to Wales in mid-December and repeat battles against Cardiff and Oxford. The famous Welsh weather did not let itself down and we arrived to blowing gales and torrential rain. But yet again the team spirit was strong and we came out clear victors in our first game against Cardiff. The second game however we knew would be a bigger test and although we had a slim lead at half time the loss of even more players (Lauren-Elbow, Vicki-Ankle, Renee-Back, Megan-Shoulder & Liz-Abdomen) left us in an extremely weak position with even at one point an exhausted defence stopping the Saints on a fourth down and dragging themselves off the field only to be sent straight back out again as the offence! The depleted squad and cold wet weather was definitely starting to take its toll but still we fought on. We were to eventually narrowly lose the game to Oxford but the iron-man football displayed by the whole team (epitomised by Dory playing with her finger held together with tape and hope) showed how much heart the team had and how badly they wanted to win. The outcome of the second tournament left us in a reasonable 2 wins 2 losses position and tied for second place with Oxford but the injuries were starting to mount up. The next tournament was still a month away and it was hoped that this would allow us a little breather and time to rest and recuperate the team.

January saw us finally host our own tournament and with Oxford being unable to field a team it was determined that we would play a 3 game ‘round robin’ tournament between ourselves, Cardiff and Wembley. The first game of the day was to be us against league leaders the Wembley Stallions. Wembley had already brushed aside all whom they had played this season and for our first ever game against them it soon became apparent as to why they were so heavily favoured, we were unable to score on them and struggled to prevent them from doing so. With their almost unlimited player rotation they were able to wear us down and won the game convincingly. A short break as Wembley played Cardiff allowed us to ‘catch our breaths’ and regroup for the final game of the day against the Valkyries. The ensuing see-saw battle had both teams fighting hard but some great defensive stands and breakout offensive plays put us in a position to win the game. Our now 3-3 record although not ideal was enough for us to hold second place in our division uncontested, it also meant that destiny lay in our own hands and that we needed just one win in the next tournament to make it to the playoff/finals.

The final regular season tournament was held in Oxford and as Cardiff had pulled out due to low numbers we would again play another 3 team ‘round robin’ tournament. Our first game against the Stallions did not start the way many had thought it would and with great defensive plays holding their prolific scoring attack in check we kept the score to 0-0 at half time. However, the Stallions were able to regroup and put up 28 unanswered points in the second half to win the game and finish their season undefeated. Our next game was against our oldest rivals the Saints, a team that had already beat us twice this season. The game started well for us, excellent play calling and execution on both sides of the ball from offensive coordinator Rob Mitchell and defensive coordinator Dave ‘Davo’ Bryant sent us into half time ahead 20-6. Oxford adjusted their game plan in the second half and managed to pull within a point but great defensive work halted their scoring while our non-stop offence were able to keep up their attack and put the game beyond reach. This gave us not only the 30-19 win but also allowed us avenge those early season losses against them and most importantly propelled us into the playoff/finals day.

A months break before the finals was sorely needed and gave us a chance to prepare and ready the team for the trip to Keele. A win in our first game would allow us to compete for first place in in the finals but sadly this was not to happen. A well drilled Teesside Steelers scored twice in the first half and though we prevented them scoring in the second their defence proved too solid for us to penetrate and the Steelers would head into the finals 14-0 winners whereas we would play the Cheshire Bears for 3rd/4th place. Our final game saw a strong Bears team dominating the first half going into half time ahead 22-7. However, our ‘never say die’ attitude shone through again and we came out for the 2nd half firing on all cylinders but despite the valiant effort we were to lose the game 36-25.

Whilst we may have only managed 4th place it was undoubtedly a positive step forward for the team and there were many other teams in our division that would have gladly traded places with us. For our first foray into 7 a-side and with all of the injuries we had sustained the team had still given its all I couldn’t have been any prouder of the determination that they had all shown.

Within a month of finishing our gruelling season nine of our players, Coach Bryant and myself entered the Diamond series (a North v South 11 a-side all comers event). Three intense all day practices were to lead up to a monumental clash between the Northern Blizzard and the Southern Blaze in Liverpool in June.

The game started well for the South and we held a slim six point lead at half time but the second half battle saw a strong Northern offence take the lead 14-12 leaving a ‘nail-biting’ 3 minutes to play. Sadly costly mistakes meant that we were unable to perform a fairy tale final drive and instead handed the Blizzard the opportunity to score again and finish victors 22-12.

You would believe that a year that started way back in September and concluded in June with Diamond would be enough! But for three of our players there was no relief; Kirsty, Sarah and Lauren had all been selected onto the GB programme and a demanding, heavy training schedule was ahead of them culminating in Lauren playing in the European championships against Sweden, Austria and Finland in August. Their selection and playing at the GB level has become an inspiration and goal that many more on the team aspire to.

With the off-season upon us and realising that last season’s injuries had severely impacted on our ability to be effective we were determined to ensure that would not be a factor again. As such we held very successful early ‘taster’ sessions to allow us ample time to recruit and coach players up to the high standard we need to be competitive next season. To complement this influx of incoming recruits we were pleased to welcome three new members to our coaching staff; Joe Alexis, Harry Kent & Gareth Rees.

Training is now in full swing for the 2019/2020 season and with the new players, returning veterans and full coaching staff we are definitely moving in the right direction and though we are creating a whole new culture and team attitude we are determined not to lose the spirit that got us where we are today.