Posted on February 25, 2018

The Sydney Uni Lions claimed the 2017 Gridiron NSW title with a win over the West Sydney Pirates in Waratah Bowl XXXIV played at Leichhardt Oval on 16 December 2017. The Lions pulled away to an early 14 point lead and rode home on the back of a dominant defensive performance to shutout the Pirates 17-0.


The Lions made the plays that counted early. The Pirates tried to catch the Lions off guard with a squib kick on the opening kick-off, but Paul Towney fielded the ball cleanly in the front line of the return unit to set up great field position at the halfway line. The Lions then pulled off another big special teams play, with Scott Thompson executing a direct snap to Mitchell Dicalfas on a fake punt, who cut through for


a first down to extend the opening drive. The Lions took full advantage, driving in to score on a 8 yard touchdown throw from Lions’ Quarterback Ike Fuchs to wide receiver Andrew Ghaly.

But the real story of the game was told on the next drive when the Pirates received the ball and tried to answer back. Instead, they were driven backwards. The Pirates had turned to a run-heavy offence this season, relying on a big offensive line and a well-drilled backfield to run over the

ir opponents. But the Lions were ready and waiting, stuffing the first two run plays for no gain and then sacking Pirates’ Quarterback Dave Ward for a big loss on a third down pass attempt. The Pirates had no choice but to punt the ball away. This was a pattern that was repeated all first half, with the Pirates going three-and-out on all of their drives without gaining a single first down and losing a total of 26 yards on offence for the half.


The Lions’ defensive dominance started up front with the defensive line of Batuhan Tuylu, Matt Dulaney, Martin Balada, Fady Aoun and Phillip Loeffler controlling the line of scrimmage and the linebacking corps of Steve Dabin, Chenghao Cui, Valerio Tizaniel and Scott Thompson coming in over the top. Dabin led the tackle count for the game with 12 tackles, with Tuylu (10 tackles, 2 for loss and 1 sack), Balada (9 tackles, 2 for loss), Aoun (7 tackles), Loeffler (6 tackles, 2 for loss and 1 sack) and Dulaney (6 tackles, 2 for loss) all major contributors.


After getting the ball straight back from the Pirates, the Lions drove in for another score. Wide receiver Harry Granger made two important receptions to pick up first downs and the Lions’ running game continued to make yards. Fuchs took advantage of an overly aggressive Pirates’ defensive line on a number of option read plays to complement the strong ground game being established by running backs Godfred Agyemang and Charles Adams. Fuchs would lead all rushers for the game with 88 y


ards on 8 carries, while Agyemang would gain 58 yards and Adams 61 yards in a total of 233 yards on the ground.

The offensive line of Tsuyoshi Kittaka, Aaron Carbury, James Gifford, Matt Taber, Elliot Mills-Connolly and Paul Towney must take due credit for this strong running game. With the Lions controlling the ball and running time off the clock, it gave the Pirates few opportunities to get into the game. The extent of the Lions control became apparent after Agyemang rushed into the endzone from 7


yards out to extend the lead to 14-0 on the first play of the second quarter – meaning that the Pirates had only held the ball for 3 plays and lost 12 yards on offence in the whole of the first quarter.

The Pirates had chances to get back into the game in the second quarter. The Lions gave up possession to the Pirates inside their own half twice in the second quarter, but


on both occasions the Lions’ defence snuffed out any threat. After the Lions had fumbled the ball away at mid-field, Scott Thompson ended the Pirates’ drive with a big tackle for loss on a wingback sweep play, and after a short punt, the defence forced incompletions on third and fourth down pass attempts with good pressure and coverage. The half ended with the Lions up 14-0 and in control.

The Pirates came out after the break seeking to establish their ground game and they did manage to pick up a first down on their first drive, but that was the extent of their success. The Lions’ defence quickly reasserted itself to force the Pirates into a 4th down situation. The Pirates gambled and tried to run for the first down but were crushed by the heart of the Lions’ defence – Aoun, Balada, Delaney


and Tizaniel combining to meet the fullback in the hole for no gain.

The Lions drove into the red zone on both of their next drives but were held back on a 4th and 1 play on the first drive to turn the ball over to the Pirates. Facing another 4th and 1 on the second drive of the half, Head Coach Andrew Ogborne called for the kicking unit and Gerald Laws slotted the 29 yard field goal to push the score out to 17 points and give the Lions a three possession lead. Laws played a crucial role for the Lions, winning the battle for field position with deep kick-offs and long, safe punts to force the Pirates to drive the length of the field to score.


With five minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, the Pirates finally broke an outside run and were only prevented from scoring by an outstanding play from safety Tizaniel, who ran down the Pirates’ running back at the 10 yard line. But the Lions were not about to give up their defensive shutout without a fight and the defence dug in at the goal line, stuffing three straight run plays to force the Pirates into 4th and goal from the 8 yard line. The Pirates ran a play for the endzone, but middle linebacker Steve Dabin was there to meet the Pirates’ fullback at the line, with the rest of the defence swarming over the top to smother the play.

With the Lions running the clock on offence and the g


ame all but out of reach, the Pirates were forced to try some deep shots in the hope of a miracle. Cornerback Leonard Yap made a textbook play to break up one deep pass attempt and Lions’ captain, Keenan Mackett, was in position to pick off the Pirates’ last-gasp effort to seal the game.

When the final whistle blew, the Lions had won 17-0 and outgained the Pirates 290 yards to 82. Lions’ Quarterback Ike Fuchs was named the games’ Most Valuable Player but selflessly remarked in his acceptance speech that he would have given the award to the Lions’ defence for their stonewall performance. The win means that the Lions have now won 19 NSW titles in their history and have extended their unprecedented run of consecutive championships starting from 2003 to 15 in a row.

It is an old football adage that “offence wins games, but defence wins championships”. Whatever the truth of that expression, certainly the Lions’ defensive performance in the 2017 Waratah Bowl was one for the ages.