The Hertfordshire Cheetahs Junior team kicked off their 2019 regular season on Sunday 28 April, with a 45-0 win over the Thames Valley Tigers.
The rescheduled contest was played at Royal Holloway University London, home of the Cheetahs’ next opponents – the Cobham Cougars, who suffered a 50-12 loss to the Kent Exiles prior to the Cheetahs-Tigers KO. With two future opponents watching on, and their initial foe across the field, the Cheetahs knew the importance of a solid performance in their first competitive game of 2019.
Winning the toss, captains Liam MacGovern (QB), Kamil Durek (HB), Marcin Kurek (DL) and Filip Bogucki (LB) deferred to the second half. The Cheetahs defense, under new DC Fab Hayward, set the tone – forcing a three and out before blocking the Tigers’ punt on fourth down. A short gain by Durek set up his backfield partner rookie Jordan Cottom (HB) for the first score of the day, a sweeping outside run behind the blocking of Ellis Jennings (RT) and James Whiteford (WR). Following a botched XP try, the Cheetahs Kick Off team trotted out with the score 6-0.
Rinse and repeat for the Cheetahs defense, with big stops by Ryan Frost (LB) and Jack Preece (LB), the former showing no signs of slowing down after a dominant Uniball season with the Kent Falcons. This time, however, the Tigers did get the punt away cleanly, only for a solid return by Jay Stewart Sinclair (WR) to bring the ball back just inside the Cheetahs own half. On second down, Luke McCorkindale Brown (HB) ripped through the Tigers defense for a 56 yard score, which James Whiteford (K) converted to make the score 13-0 Cheetahs. Reminiscing about the previous season’s 48-0 win over the Tigers, the Cheetahs appeared to be off to a strong start on all three phases.
However, the scoreline belied the Cheetahs inconsistency on offense, and the remainder of the first half was littered with mental mistakes and misfires. Following McCorkindale Brown‘s breakaway score, the Cheetahs Special Teams again came up trumps, recovering a fumble to give the Cheetahs great field position. MacGovern then hit Stewart Sinclair for a twenty yard gain, only for the play to be called back for an illegal formation by the Cheetahs’ Wide Receivers. MacGovern then attempted to hit James Purr (WR) for a decent gain, but Purr was well covered by the Tigers Cornerback. On third and a mile, the Cheetahs went backwards again, with an illegal motion following misalignment by the Wide Receivers. MacGovern, spreading the ball around, looked for Ben Wilson (WR) on third and forever, but the ball fell short and the Cheetahs were forced to punt.
Special Teams came to the rescue, with Josh Miller-Hall (P) booming the ball inside the Tigers 10. The Cheetahs defense continued their dominance with a sack by Tom MacIntyre (CB), before a pair of tackles-for-loss by Kurek (DL) and Frost. On fourth down, Preece, smashed through the line again, deflecting the Tigers punt, with the ball recovered inside the 20. With a short field, the Cheetahs offense must have been confident of a score, especially after Cottom and Durek made it third and short with a pair of powerful inside runs. MacGovern, however, was uncharacteristically off-target, missing on two consecutive throws to turn the ball over on downs.
No dramas for the Cheetahs defense, however, who topped a Frost tackle and Rob Simpson (DL) tackle-for-loss with a Kurek–Simpson combo sack for a safety. 15-0 Cheetahs. Incensed by their dip in form, the Cheetahs offense returned to the field intent on scoring again, and appeared to have done so after a ludicrous 60 yard TD run by McCorkindale Brown, following a botched snap. However, Stewart Sinclair was the latest Cheetah to fall-foul of misalignment pre-snap, and the TD was called back. Stewart Sinclair, clearly enraged at himself, proceeded to take an end around pitch for 30 yards – padding his and MacGovern‘s stats nicely. MacGovern, sensing momentum, dropped back artfully hitting Whiteford in stride, only for the ball to bounce painfully to the ground following a good hit by the Tigers Safety. Perhaps rattled, Whiteford fumbled on the next play, but managed to recover the football. On fourth down, the Cheetahs again went for it, with MacGovern just overshooting Cottom, who had the first down in touching distance.
The next score was, predictably, from the Cheetahs defense, when Preece chased down a high snap from the Tigers’ Long Snapper, tackling the Punter for a second safety, 17-0 Cheetahs. On the ensuing Free Kick, and still steaming from the McCorkindale Brown non-TD, Stewart Sinclair took the ball 60 yards back towards the Kicker, only to fumble with one man to beat for the endzone. The Tigers’ offense then appeared to get into a rhythm, with a couple of nice completions before Durek and Bogucki rekindled their form, with a pair of sacks.
It was then the turn of the Cheetahs Special Teams to ‘lose their heads’ when MacIntyre‘s blushes at accidentally kneeing a “poison” punt, were saved only by the quick reactions of Dylan Baylis (S/ KR). The Cheetahs’ offense returned to the field, with Alex Cameron (HB) running behind a dominant Callum Cocks (LT) and Benjamin Smythe (C). Following a couple of pancake blocks in the ground game, the pass protection proceeded to hold up perfectly, and MacGovern threaded a beautiful strike to Whiteford, splitting the defensive backs perfectly. Unfortunately for Whiteford, the ball struck his fingers, then his numbers, then the floor of the endzone. It appeared nothing would quite fall right for the Cheetahs offense, but Stewart Sinclair bucked the trend by taking the next snap on an end around to the 1 yard line. On the ensuing play, Cottom crashed behind Seth Cyster-White (C) and Toki Balogun (RT) for his second score of the day. Seizing the momentum, the Cheetahs went for two, only for Cottom to come up just short.
23-0 at the half.
Receiving the ball to start the second half, the Cheetahs rotated their young squad, with Louis Groom (QB) taking over the reigns. After a long run on first down, Groom handed off to Durek for his first score of the game – 29-0 Cheetahs. The two point try came up short, and the Cheetahs KO team booted the ball deep into Tigers’ territory. Joshua Drummond (CB) made an athletic pass deflection on third down, before the Tigers, now desperate for points, came up short on their next attempt. The turnover on downs was followed by a brave scramble by Groom. Dropping back, with eyes for Purr, the Tigers’ Safety undercut Groom‘s next throw, but contacted Purr in the process. The resulting interception was rightly called back for blatant defensive pass interference, only for the Tigers to record a sack on their next play, before Ben Lowes (WR) caught a brilliant contested ball over the shoulder of his defender to make up most of the lost yardage. However, a high snap on fourth and short was recovered by McCorkindale Brown short of the sticks, giving the Tigers another turnover on downs.
Feeling the “statement” scoreline slipping away, the Cheetahs defense stepped up once more. Lucas Cornwall (DB) recorded a huge hit on the Tigers’ HB, which resulted in some fisticuffs from the Tigers’ offense. However, Cornwall let his play doing the talking, and after a Tigers’ false start, picked off the Tigers’ QB inside his own twenty.
Twice in three plays, the Cheetahs were forced to call timeouts, with mental errors and misalignment creeping across the offense, despite the excellent field position created by Cornwall. A holding call following a scramble by Groom followed, before he narrowly overthrew George Birch (WR) across the middle of the field. Two plays later, however, Groom found pay-dirt, hitting Stewart Sinclair with a precise strike to the endzone. Miller-Hall (K) converted the two-point try, 37-0 Cheetahs.
With the clock running continuously, the fourth quarter sped by, but there was still enough time for Indy Wood (QB) to lead the offense down the field, leaning heavily on the work of Cottom, Cameron and a huge gain from Stewart Sinclair. Unfortunately, the Cheetahs drive would splutter to an end on third down, when a miscommunication lead to a Cameron fumble and recovery by the Tigers. The Cheetahs defense would have the last laugh, however, with a fake punt resulting in a Bogucki strip, sack, fumble – recovered by Kurek for a thirty yard scoop and score. With no time left to try the XP, the game finished 43-0 Cheetahs.
Overall the Cheetahs performed solidly against a Tigers team who had improved significantly from 2018. The Tigers were technically accomplished on defense, but their offense struggled to break away from the speed and physicality of Coach Hayward‘s unit.
Post-game, Head Coach Alex Halms was realistic in his assessment of the season-opener: “I said to the players before the game, what we need from today is a win and a good performance, anything after that is a bonus. I knew Thames Valley had improved numbers and refocused their coaching and frankly the scoreline was very kind to us. There were too many mental errors on offense, and today was a harsh lesson for some of our players that on Sundays, when the chips are down, there is nowhere to hide. We are lucky that we now have a long run until we face Cobham, so the guys can redouble their efforts on being mentally prepared, and can use this experience to develop as individuals and as a team. Last season we were caught up in complacency, but safe to say nobody is resting on their laurels after Sunday. I must say, however, that the defense and special teams did, for the most part, put in a very good performance. We will need to tidy up some of our outside contain and initial hits against bigger backs and faster playmakers, but it’s a good start. With a number of key pieces missing and so many rookies making their debuts, it was good to see that this offseason’s work is paying off. I was particularly delighted that three of our four rookie HBs (Durek, Cottom and McCorkindale Brown) were able to score on their debuts, and I’m sure we will get Cameron in the endzone soon enough!“
Cheetahs MVPs on Offense were Cocks (LT) and Stewart Sinclair (WR), whilst Kurek (DL) scooped the award on defense, and Coach Bradford gave the entire Punt Return Unit the honours on special teams.
Cottom (HB): 2 Rushing TDs (12 pts),
McCorkindale Brown (HB): 1 Rushing TD (6 pts),
Durek (HB): 1 Rushing TD (6pts),
Groom (QB)/ Stewart Sinclair (WR): 1 Passing/ Receiving TD (6 pts).
Defense/ Special Team
Preece (LB): 1 Safety (2 pts),
Kurek (DL)/ Simpson (DL): 1 Safety (2 pts),
Durek (DL): Fumble Recovery TB (6 pts), Sacks 1.5,
Bogucki: Sacks 2, Forced Fumbles 1,
Frost: Sacks 2, TFLs 3,
Durek: TFLs 2,
Simpson: Sacks 0.5, TFL 1,
MacIntyre: Sacks 1,
Cornwall: INT 1, TFL 1,
Miller-Hall: 2PT Conversion (2 pts),
Whiteford (K): 1 XP (1 pt).