On Sunday 29 July, the 4-1 Hertfordshire Cheetahs Juniors hosted the 3-2 London Warriors, in a showdown to determine who would join the 6-0 London Blitz in the National Semi Finals. Hamstrung by school holidays and injuries, both the Cheetahs and Warriors entered Sunday’s game with an unfamiliar feel to their rosters. The growth of the Cheetahs programme over the last few seasons shone through however, fielding 27 players to Warriors 13.
The numbers advantage would prove crucial in an attritional contest with difficult weather conditions throughout. Despite the absence of Liam MacGovern, Ollie Mulcahy led the offence admirably, with a quick audible to an uncovered Ben Wilson to set up a Cheetahs score on their first drive. Rinse and repeat for the 2 pt conversion. 8-0 Cheetahs. Despite missing five of nine starters, the Cheetahs D showed it’s characteristic toughness on the next series – forcing a turnover on downs. Not to be outdone, a catch and reception by the tackle-breaking Josh Miler-Hall set up Jack Stodel for the short TD run when the Cheetahs O took over. The Cheetahs were up 14-0 at the beginning of Q2, with the 2pt unsuccessful.
The Cheetahs defence continued its dominance to the half, giving up very few yards and exactly 0 points, with standout performances by utility-men Aaron Connell (SS) and Jake Channer (MLB). The offence continued to rumble behind the blocking of MVP RT Byron Kealy, and rookie WR Jack Crick laid a crucial block to allow Miller-Hall to score a richly deserved TD at the end of the first half. Jack Stodel again converting the 2pt. 20-0 Cheetahs at the half. What looked like a comfortable W at the midway point, however, soon turned into a contest. With injuries to HB Ashley Gatulah, WR Ben Wilson and DL Bryce Braddon, as well as an ailing Marcin Kurek (DL), the Cheetahs set about a painful limp to the post-season.
The second half was littered with indiscipline and mistakes, a botched punt snap leading to a Warriors safety, with a heads-up play from P Jack Stodel saving the defensive TD. The defence entered “bend but don’t break” mode. Two long Warriors drives were snuffed out by a pick by FS Dylan Baylis and a strip sack fumble by Jake Channer, with the Cheetahs O stuck in neutral. By the end of Q3, however, the Warriors found an opening, hitting a deep ball over the otherwise faultless Tom MacIntyre (perhaps incensed by a questionable PI call a few plays earlier). The 2pt conversion successful, it was a nervy few minutes to round out the regular season for the Cheetahs. Nevertheless, calm heads, confident special teams and good ball security by rookie HB Kiran Jolly (in only his second session with the Cheetahs) allowed the Juniors to kneel out Q4, 28-10 victors.
Despite the laboured finish, the Cheetahs end the season 5-1, making them the most successful Junior programme in their history. The win also guarantees the Juniors: (i) a spot in the National Plate; or (ii) (preferably) a shot at the National Championship in Brit Bowl, depending on the outcome of the Blitz rematch on 12 August. They join an elite group of teams (Manchester, East Kilbride and the defending-Champion Blitz) in the “Final Four”, marking Hertfordshire’s arrival on the national stage of U19 football.
HC Alex Halms was preaching perspective at the final whistle: “today was tough. It’s the kind of game good teams can lose, but great teams dig out a result. We showed maturity, character and depth. Guys we’re out of position, others were a little rusty, and some are just very green. The performance wasn’t perfect, but the result was functional. We did what we had to. Thankfully, the injuries we sustained are not too serious, and the majority of our squad are back for Blitz. I expect to arrive in Finsbury Park at full strength and completely prepared. This is a familiar foe, but a hugely talented one. There were 7 points between us in June, and I’d like to think we’ve improved. If we play to our best, I have every faith we can win. After all, everyone likes a good underdog story. We’ve beaten far longer odds to get this far!”