Redbrick Sport writer Josh Hunt met up with Birmingham Lions head coach Wayne Hill and key player Greg Freeman to see how the team have been preparing ahead of Xplosion next week...
'We don't plan for that to happen again'. So says third year Greg Freeman, free safety with the Birmingham Lions American Football team on coming just half a yard short of victory against Portsmouth in last year's BUCS final. Having met both Freeman and head coach Wayne Hill it is clear that this is no mere bluster; this is a side determined to put that disappointment behind them and regain their title as Britain's best university side.
Just 14 years ago the Lions were a side who had never been to the play-offs. That was before Hill joined the setup. Since then the Lions have been a major part of Birmingham's sporting success, reaching the playoffs every single year and winning three national championships. Hill left the side four years ago to get married, but returned a year later to work with the defence and, midway through last year, regained the head coaching position on an interim basis, subsequently getting the job full time. Alongside Hill's return have been a number of other changes to the coaching staff over the last two seasons, all of which are helping to rebuild the mentality of the squad. Freeman explains the team has changed from 'a team who thought we would win by rights to a team who believes we'll win now because we're working harder.'
Hard work is a key element of how the Lions intend to make this season one of their best yet. 'Training for this season started the day after the bowl loss', Hill tells me. Although they will only play eight matches before the playoffs, American football is one of the most physical sports there is and intense physical training is vital for any team wanting to compete at this level. The team trains, either physically or tactically, four times a week and mixes track work with gym sessions and regular practices to ensure that each player is on top of their game. Veteran players regularly organise extra practice sessions on top of the already heavy workload. Of equal importance to the physical work are video sessions to study upcoming opponents' key men and possible schemes. A 14-man coaching staff ensures that there is expertise in every aspect of the game, and Birmingham's commitment to bringing in graduate former players to the coaching staff helps to nurture the team spirit that has already brought the Lions so much success.
The intake of new players this year has been impressive, 'the best we've ever had', says Hill, and goes to show the growth of the sport in England. Most of the new players can expect to start their time with the side working on special teams – the kicking and punting units – before hopefully making their breakthroughs into the starting line-up. The rookies will also get the chance to show off their skills in two friendly matches against Worcester and Kingston in the next couple of weeks. The new players will join a team already carrying over 40 players from last year's squad to ensure competition for every position, increasing existing players' focus to up their game week after week to maintain their starting roles.
The season kicks off Saturday 5th November with the annual Xplosion event against a very competitive Nottingham Trent Renegades outfit. This promises to be bigger than ever thanks to the new five-figure sponsorship deals Freeman and others were able to attract from main sponsors KPMG and Walkabout among others. This has made the American Football side more heavily backed by outside companies than any other Birmingham sports team. The game will once again be attended by a Sky Sports team including analyst Neil Reynolds and former NFL Pro Cecil Martin, and will attract hundreds of spectators, all of whom are encouraged to wear the royal blue colours of the Lions. With a strong setup, history of success and a revitalised attitude the Birmingham Lions are set for their most Xplosive season yet.
Xplosion kicks off at 5pm on Saturday 5th November on the Bournbrook pitch. There will be a half time firework display and performance from the Pussycats , while food and drink will be available throughout the event.