American Football: Leeds rivals ready for battle

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Sunday is SuperBowl time in America, but as Nick Westby discovers, it is not the only show in town as two Leeds teams meet.

It is the biggest game in the largest market, the showdown between the two best teams and a reason for people regardless of generation and gender to come together to celebrate sport.

Connor Bibby, left, captain of the Leeds Carnegie with Ben Smith, 20, skipper of the Leeds University Celtics.

Connor Bibby, left, captain of the Leeds Carnegie with Ben Smith, 20, skipper of the Leeds University Celtics.

The SuperBowl is a unique occasion, a one-off sporting spectacle like no other, when the intensity of combat meets the razmattazz of entertainment.

And the 49th edition of America’s Game has a new bedfellow.

For on a chilly afternoon at Weetwood Hall tomorrow, the SuperBowl’s less-heralded curtain raiser takes place.

The VarsityBowl between Leeds Carnegie – representing Leeds Beckett University – and Leeds University Celtics is the latest chapter in the city’s sporting rivalry.

The game forms part of the Varsity festivities between the two universities, staged annually for the last 10 years on October 1.

Hundreds of students from the twin institutions do battle across 25 sports, but reflective of the growth of American football – and to align with the respective teams’ seasons – the gridiron contest has its own day in the spotlight.

And there is no bigger day in the sport’s diary than SuperBowl Sunday.

In Arizona tomorrow night, the defending champion Seattle Seahawks meet the New England Patriots for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The respective rosters of each Leeds team – some 45 players on each side – will be at their own SuperBowl parties by then, either licking their wounds or toasting triumph.

Carnegie will be partying at The Box in Headingley, while the Celtics will congregate at Carpe Diem in the city, hoping it is they who have seized the day.

“It’s a huge game for us. We’ve got a lot of people coming down to watch and it’s going to be a great event,” says Ben Smith, the Celtics captain, who plays as a safety in a Leeds University defence that last year was unable to prevent Carnegie winning 21-0.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to try and turn our season around. Hopefully we can go out and turn the tide this year.

“It’s a great atmosphere at the game for fans and while we all love playing the sport, there was never a chance of us joining together to watch the SuperBowl.”

His opposite number, Connor Bibby, concurs.

“It’s going to be a very tough game, both teams will be up for it and there’s a lot at stake,” said the Carnegie captain, who plays both in the defensive and offensive units.

“It’s gone our way the past two years, but previous form doesn’t matter on the day, we’re both hungry for it so it should be a cracking game.”

Rivalry aside, both captains and their teams know they have a dual role this weekend, to continue growing the sport they love.

Not that American football is struggling in the UK market.

The jump-start it was given in the 1980s by Channel 4’s coverage of the National Football League has accelerated in the past decade.

So much so that an experimental visit to Wembley in 2007 to play a regular season game has developed with such speed that there are now strong suggestions of a franchise eventually playing out of London and competing regularly in America.

Such a target gives the young men who play in the university league hope that there may be a professional outlet for them at the end of what is currently a social pastime.

American football may not have a professional league in the UK, but that does not mean there is a lack of interest.

Leeds and Beckett are just two of 72 teams who play in the university league. There is the same number again in the amateur senior leagues.

“It’s definitely a sport on the rise,” adds Smith.

“If you look at the international games at Wembley they’re selling out each time.

“The numbers are increasing at participation level now with so many teams just at university level.

“I only started playing last year. I played rugby but when I came to university I wanted to do something different and decided to give American football ago.

“I’ve always enjoyed team sports, it’s great being able to achieve something working as a team.

“I enjoy the sport so much that I want to continue playing after university.

“There are adult teams; Yorkshire Rams, Leeds Bobcats who are setting up, there’s teams all over the country, so I’ll try and play for one of those.”

For Bibby, the reasons are similar. “It’s the sense of being in a team,” he adds.

“It’s a big brotherhood. And 72 teams just goes to show that it’s a thriving sport.

“We had 220 people try out for us last year. They come from rugby or football backgrounds.

“They quickly learn that rules aren’t as complicated as the sport’s detractors suggest.

“There are some obscure ones that are a bit harder to understand, but you don’t get them in every game.

“But once you get the general grasp of the rules it is a very good game to get into and watch. It’s as much tactical as it is physical.”

Tomorrow afternoon at Weetwood, with the VarsityBowl on the line, it will be both.


Gridiron basics

* The basic premise is of a team having four downs to move the ball 10 yards towards the opposing team’s endzone.

* Rosters are made up of 53 players in the NFL, and around 45 in the British university league with 11 men on the field at one time.

Games are four, 15-minute quarters.

* A crowd of 350 is expected at Weetwood Hall tomorrow afternoon for the Varsity Bowl (1.30).

* Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots meet in SuperBowl XLIX (11.30pm UK).