Wow, what a year! This time last year we had yet to play a competitive game. A year on and we have not only played but also made the finals in our first year, went undefeated until our final game, participated in and were part of the champion Southern team in the Diamond league and had three of our players selected to represent the Exiles at GB. Like I said, wow what a year!
It all started to fall into place when we first dipped our toes into competitive football back in November. Prior to the official league starting up a series of non-league games were arranged under the Topaz heading. We were fortunate to play hosts for our games against the Oxford Saints, Staffordshire Saxons and Peterborough Royals (3 teams who we would play later in the Sapphire league). After beating the well-established Saints 32-6 we played a controlled scrimmage against the Saxons before finishing the day by defeating the Royals 20-0. This day was to give the first glimpse of what we were capable of and it made us realise that all the training and hard work had been worth it. However, it was not to be all good news as we were to lose a valuable member of the team on the day to a torn ACL!
After our success in the Topaz we realised that we were not just there to compete but were also going to be able to win. Further intensive training plus the additions of a Wembley Stallions captain and a newcomer who would go on to be called up for the GB team were the final pieces that we would need for our first season.
The season kicked off in February as we again played hosts to the Saints, Royals and Saxons (the Sapphire tournaments are staged similar to the youth tournaments with teams playing multiple games on the same day). This time we were scheduled to go up against the Saxons and the Royals and after two impressive wins we finished another day undefeated.
The next round was held at Peterborough and we knew we would have our work cut out for us as we were to face a determined Saints team looking to avenge their Topaz defeat against us. We had prepared for the Saints running game but this time it turned out far harder to stop them. By the half the Saints were ahead by 10 and looking confident. After a buoyant half time talk we felt ready to mount a comeback, unfortunately the Saints were having none of that and on the very first play of the second half they ran the ball the length of the field for a touchdown! The shock of that easy score woke up a monster and our defence would not only shut them out for the rest of the game but were to pick the ball off to allow our offence to mount an impressive comeback, a comeback that would go down to the wire finishing with a nail biting 30-26 victory to us. Our second game on the day was not to prove as exciting as we beat the Saxons convincingly 41-6.
The third round fell on the first weekend in March and due to the impossible conditions all games that weekend were cancelled. This left us at the top of the table, undefeated and going into the finals tournament as the top seed with the highest scoring offence and the lowest points conceded defence.
The finals again fell on a weekend of terrible weather but this would not be enough to stop the games. Our semi-final game against the Saxons went well and the win thrust us into the final against the Saints and their homefield advantage. With all the preparation and scouting we felt ready to beat them for the third and final time. Sadly the Saints were equally as prepared and throughout the game they often skilfully out manoeuvred us. At half time we were down by less than a score but their punishing defence and great running were to prove too much for us on the day and Oxford were to win and become the Division 2B champions. Although we were denied the championship we had come such a long way and had justly earned our second place.
However, our year was not to end there as only a month later the Diamond series was held (an 11 a-side all-comers football tournament) and not only did the five players and 2 coaches that participated learn a great deal from the experience, but the players were able to showcase their talents to the attending GB scouts. Out of the five Exiles attending the Diamond series three were invited to attend the GB camps.
And even more recently (with the welcome assistance of other Exile coaches) we held two extremely successful ‘taster’ days. We have used these days as part of our very active recruitment program in order to bolster our squad towards our next goal, our assault on the upcoming Sapphire league.