Sweet Sixteen

Posted on February 2, 2019

The Sydney Uni Lions took on all comers – exerting their will over the UNSW Raiders, playing through heavy thunderstorms and dealing with long lightning delays – to claim Waratah Bowl XXXV at Leichhardt Oval last Saturday. Riding on the back of a strong defensive showing, the Lions took control in the second and third quarters and then held their nerve through repeated lightning delays to seal a 33-16 victory with a 16 yard touchdown strike from Quarterback Jordan Nikora to Harry Granger in the final quarter. The win reclaimed the Foundation Shovel from the Raiders and extended the Lions’ incredible title run to 16 consecutive GNSW championships.

While the kick-off had to be pushed back by the first of three lightning delays, once the game started it became clear that the Raiders’ vaunted spread offence would have its hands full. The Raiders had stacked their offence with five US imports and run an up-tempo passing attack, averaging 43.7 points per game and dropping 64 points on the Sutherland Seahawks in their playoff game. However, the Raiders were bundled out without gaining a yard on their first possession, Lions’ Safety Keenan Mackett dropping a run play for a loss and the defence forcing two incompletions with strong pressure and tight coverage. This was a sign of things to come, as the Raiders’ offence would be held in check for much of the game and limited to less than 200 total yards and their lowest score of the season.

The Lions’ front of John Tamanivalu, Philip Loeffler, Martin Balada, Rick Holt, Batuhan Tuylu and Liam Erby were crucial to this defensive dominance, combining for 2 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 5 batted passes and, importantly, constant hurries and pressures on the Raiders’ quarterback. Rick Holt continued his record-setting season with a powerful display, recording 4 tackles, 1 sack and 3 batted passes, and being unlucky not to be credited with a late fumble recovery for touchdown. The commitment of the defence was exemplified by Philip Loeffler, who made a special effort to get back into the country for the game and drove straight to the venue from the airport to make key plays when the game was on the line.

While the Lions’ offence would ultimately gain the most yards of any game this season (521 yards at 6.5 yards per play), early on it failed to capitalise by making costly ball-handling errors. The Lions took their first possession and drove confidently into the Raiders’ half, Running Back Godfred Agyemang breaking a 40 yard run to put the Lions’ within scoring distance. Agyemang would receive the Waratah Bowl MVP award for his powerful performance in scoring 3 touchdowns while rushing for 146 yards on 29 carries and adding a further 42 yards on 4 pass receptions. But the Lions’ opening drive stalled, with a run being taken for a loss, passes going to ground and a long-range field goal attempt falling short.

The Raiders took advantage and drove down to the Lions’ 9 yard line after their classy slot receiver held a 20 yard reception despite tight coverage. From there the Lions’ defence stiffened, shutting down two run plays and Nick Olive getting the better of the Raiders’ slot receiver on a crossing route to break up the pass. Olive found himself at the fulcrum of the Raiders’ attack for much of the game, repeatedly matching up in coverage against the quarterback’s favourite receiver, and responded with a career day, making 13 tackles, with 2 tackles for loss, while breaking up 3 pass attempts. The Lions’ secondary, made up of Nick Olive, Keenan Mackett, Suren Wickramasinghe, Leonard Yap, Max Granger and Anthony Sinton, executed a sophisticated coverage scheme which held the Raiders’ passing attack to only a 40% completion percentage while picking off two interceptions. The Lions secondary has now gone 10 Waratah Bowl quarters without giving up a passing touchdown to a wide receiver. A Ph. D in pass D for DBU!

The Raiders kicked a field goal to take a 3 point lead, and that was the only score at the end of the first quarter, but slowly and surely from there the Lions took control of the game. The Lions fumbled away their next two possessions, even driving all the way down to the Raider’s 1 yard line, only to have the ball taken out of the hands of Quarterback Jordan Nikora as he stretched out to try to cross the goal line to score. But the defence was playing outstanding football. Pressure and coverage combined for Lions’ legend Anthony Sinton to swoop in from the deep to pick off a pass on one drive, while Nick Olive rallied up to push the scrambling Raiders’ quarterback out of bounds before the first down marker to end another. After the Raiders’ punter sliced a short punt out at the halfway line, it was time for the Lions to turn the pressure into points.

The Lions running game had been making the hard yards against a stacked box. The offensive line of Aaron Carbury, Rick Holt, James Gifford, Alex Watson and Matt LeGuay powered the run game to a total of 303 yards at 6.2 per play for the game. But, just as importantly, they kept the pocket clean, allowing no sacks all day. And it was a well executed 30 yard pass from Nikora to Slot Receiver Kaelum Madera that set up the Lions’ first touchdown. Madera was ankle-tapped at the 1 yard line, but Agyemang did the honours, ploughing into the endzone on the next play to give the Lions a 7-3 lead.

With time running out in the half, the Raiders went into hurry-up mode from a 5 wide set, but the Lions’ defence was up to the challenge, forcing the Raiders to turn the ball over on downs after defending a 4th & 5 pass attempt on the Lions’ 24 yard line. To rub salt into the wound, the Lions offence then showed the Raiders how to execute an effective 2 minute drill and drove the field for another score. Nikora balanced a long completion to Madera and a key scramble on third down with steady gains from Agyemang to place the ball on the 2 yard line with 20 seconds in the half. From there, Agyemang powered into the endzone behind great blocking from the offensive line to give the Lions a 14-3 lead at the half.

With the Lions receiving the ball to start the second half, they had the opportunity to stretch their lead with a strong drive. The Lions took their opportunity with both hands. With growing confidence, Nikora guided the Lions’ offence down the field, rushing himself for key gains on the drive. And when Nikora had to come out at the goal line due to the blood rule, the offence did not miss a beat, with Lukas Vojnar stepping in at quarterback to rush for 8 yards for a crucial 3rd down conversion and then direct Agymang into the endzone from 6 yrds out. While the PAT was missed, the score was now 20-3, giving the Lions a three score lead.

The teams exchanged their next possessions, but a couple of penalties on the Lions brought the Raiders into range and some missed assignments on defence saw the Raiders break a 38 yard run play for a touchdown. With a successful PAT, the Raiders had brought the score back to 20-10 and, with the rain now pouring down, they stacked even more defenders into the box to shut down the Lions’ run game. With thunder rolling in the distance and the partisan Raiders’ crowd finding voice, it was time to make a play.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. On 2nd down from the Lions’ 20, Eamonn Akamarmoi took an inside handoff, swept around right end and ran into Lions’ folklore. Behind strong blocking from the offensive line, Akamarmoi glided through the front, cutback on the linebackers and set sail for the distant endzone. Deftly changing his line as the Raiders’ defensive backs converged and palming off those petty men who walked under his huge legs peeping about, Akamarmoi bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus. His 70 yard touchdown through the teeth of a defence stacked to stop the run was a crushing blow to the Raiders. Zeus celebrated his heroic feat by loosing off some lightning bolts and, once again, the players were forced off the field.

After a lengthy delay, Gerard Laws and the kicking unit converted the PAT to push the lead back out to a three score game at 27-10. But the Raiders were not done and on their next possession they sprung a big play of their own, flipping a screen pass on 3rd & 10 to their running back, who found a lane down the sideline and all the way to the endzone for a 59 yard touchdown. The Raiders went for two points but failed, leaving the score standing at 27-16.

Now well into the fourth quarter, it was time to win the championship. The Lions’ offence dug deep and ground out two time-sapping drives. Nikora teamed up with Granger on a comeback route on 4th & 6 to extend the first drive but the Lions failed to score on 4th & Goal at the 3 yard line, giving the Raiders one last chance. But veteran linebacker Liam Erby was having none of it. On 3rd & 15, he read the screen pass all the way and cleaned up the Raiders’ Running Back in a devastating form tackle to dislodge the ball incomplete.

The Lions took the ball back at their own 22 yard line and drove to victory. The offensive line and Agyemang played their best football, running relentlessly into the Raiders’ 7 man defensive box, now brimming with extra US flavour. The Lions ground all the way to the Raiders’ 16 yard line where, on 4th & 3, they put a dagger in the Raiders’ heart with a pin-point pass from Nikora to Granger for a 16 yard touchdown.

There was little time left on the clock, but the Lions finished in style, Loeffler sacking the Raiders’ quarterback for a big loss and then Erby icing the game with a interception on a deep pass over the middle.

The win secured the 20th GNSW championship in club history. And for the current squad, the victory was especially sweet – Sweet Sixteen!