By Stefan Taylor
Southampton Stags – 23
UWE Bullets – 15
Wide Lane was the venue for Southampton Stags first home playoff game in over three years with the undefeated Stags hosting the UWE Bullets. The game was a replica of last years playoff match between the two teams, when the Bullets won a close encounter 26-20. Both teams looked strong throughout the regular season, and with hard-hitting defences, and high scoring offences, we knew the game would come down to the final moments.
After the Stags deferred the coin toss, UWE accepted to receive and it was the special teams and their long time member of the club, Dayne Robinson who returned the kick off back for a touchdown, his second kick off return for a touchdown in as many years against the Stags. With the point after touchdown (PAT) duly converted, the Stags offence now had to prove to the rest of the league that they could perform in the playoffs as well as they did in the regular season. (Score 7-0 to Bullets)
With solid runs from Jonny Brooks-Bartlett, and a couple of penalties against UWE, the Stags found themselves close to the end zone, and after two attempts it was third time lucky as Tristan Demuth ran in for a touchdown. Unfortunately the Stags could not convert their PAT. (Score 7-6 to Bullets)
The next couple of drives for each team showed promise, but ended with each team punting it away to the opposition. With roughly six minutes left in the first half, the Stags offence grew in confidence, and were comprehensively marching down the field with Brooks-Bartlett carrying the load with solid runs of 7 and 8 yards respectively. The Passing game was finally gaining some momentum, with Quarterback Dana Neale regularly hitting Wide Receiver Andrew Halteh, and it was this pairing which scored the Stags second touchdown of the day. Once again, a penalty on the UWE Bullets continued the drive for the Stags offence, and when Neale was given time to throw by the outstanding offensive line, he threw to the back of the end zone, where Halteh made a leaping grab for his first score of the day. The PAT was converted for the Stags. (Score 13-7 to Stags)
With time still remaining in the first half, UWE still had an opportunity to add some points before going into the changing rooms, but Stags Linebacker Sam Hibberd had other ideas, with three consecutive tackles on the Running Back for negative yards. This brought an end to the first half with the Stags still leading 13-7.
The crowd who came to watch the match, were given a treat at half time, when the Vixen cheerleaders showed their skills with impressive dance moves and lifts. With the Stags receiving the ball at the start of the second half, they knew that scoring points on the first drive and that is what they achieved, with another solid drive by the offence, the Stags had to settle for a field goal by Richard Davis. (Score 16-7 to Stags)
Not for the first time, both defences were holding their opposition’s offence to small yardage and effectively leading to each team punting away. As the fourth quarter arrived, the game was finely balanced with the result going either away, but another score by the Stags would effectively put them in control and one foot into next week’s semi final. Under the guidance of the Neale, the Stags continued to drive down the field with Brooks-Bartlett finally getting a reward for all his effort with a touchdown of his own, and again the Stags converted the PAT. (Score 23-7)
With just six minutes left, the Stags regained possession but had to punt the ball away after failing to achieve a first down. The UWE offence then took to the field hoping to replicate their earlier drive, and after a couple of solid run plays, it had seemed Defensive back George Lester had ended the game with an incredible one handed interception in which he used his helmet to hold on to the ball. It had seemed that now the Stags could just run out the clock, but with 48 seconds left on the clock, a miscommunication between Neale and Brooks-Bartlett, saw the ball fumbled, a UWE player picked up the ball and last ditch tackle by Brooks-Bartlett prevented UWE from scoring. With now roughly 40 seconds left in the game, UWE had the best field position of the day with the ball on the 2 yard line, a score now would leave the Bullets just needing a 2 point conversion to tie the game up and send it to overtime.
The first play resulted in a one-yard gain by UWE, and with no timeouts left and the clock winding down, a great pass to their running back suggested UWE may score, but strong defence from Linebackers Ciaron Milne and Tom Corfield ensured that Stags would end up victorious with time running out and the score ending 23-15.
The Stags now travel to Birmingham Lions next Saturday for a place in the final. Coach Gareth issued a statement:
Going to Birmingham has always been tough, we’ve had some epic games over the years and I’m sure this one won’t disappoint. We know it will be another tough game but this is what Championship football is all about. We had a physical game against UWE – we made some mistakes, but worked hard to rectify them. We cannot afford to make those mistakes this weekend.