By James Lloyd
The Cardiff Cobras booked their place in the 2015/16 play-offs following a comfortable 19-0 shutout victory against the UWE Bullets – the first time the Cobras have reached the play-off stages since the 2011/12 season.
Touchdowns from Scott Higgins, Billy Rowlands and the versatile Sean Cook were enough for Cardiff to ease past an athletic Bullets side.
It has been a long time coming for the Cobras, who have endured seasons of hurt having failed to qualify for the post-season since 2012. Head Coach, Ben Watkins, believes there’s a long way to go in the season, saying: “The job is not finished. It is an amazing place to be in, but we need to keep driving forward and win these last couple of games of the regular season before making that final push in the playoffs to realise the dreams of the players and coaches.”
The coach, who is now amongst the most successful Cobras head coaches ever with a record of 13-1, a 92.9 per cent winning record, added: “We have the talent and the ability to go all the way in the playoffs, I have no doubt about that. It is just a case of everyone focusing and working hard towards the same goal over the next month to achieve it.”
Last season, Cardiff fell agonisingly short of the play-offs despite holding an impressive record of 7-1. Long-time rivals and Welsh compatriots, Swansea Titans, edged the Cobras in a tight battle to pip the Red & Blacks to the only divisional place in the post-season.
Cardiff did take revenge at the 2015 Varsity, beating the Titans 19-17 in their own back yard following a close and tense match-up. This year, changes to league structure open up two places, plus a potential wild card for post-season football.
On Sunday, Cardiff took on UWE for the second time this season, having breezed past the Bullets in their season opener 16-0. The Cobras travelled to Bristol’s Filton Wise campus for the fixture – the fourth time that Cardiff have ventured over the Severn Bridge due to the ongoing controversy surrounding use of their home facilities at Llanrumney.
With Cardiff kicking off the game, it gave UWE the chance to test the defense of a side who had yet to concede a point so far in the season. The Bullets’ offense had racked up a lowly 40 points across their opening four games and were soon on the back foot, going three and out on their opening drive.
The Cobras soon followed suit and the opening exchanges remained scrappy as both sides struggled to adapt to the harsh conditions. Late in the first quarter, Cardiff found the breakthrough. With starting Quarterback, Chris Brinkworth, still out following a knock in the Welsh Bowl against Aberystwyth the previous week, Sean Cook stepped up to fill the void. Cook soon found his groove and picked out Scott Higgins for the opening touchdown – his fifth of the season.
Cook and the rest of the offense marched Cardiff into another dangerous position. And, after Cook linked up with Higgins once more bringing up first and goal, running-back, Billy Rowlands, was able to punch the ball in following a dive in the left corner. That gave the Cobras a 12-0 lead.
The defense, inspired by the will to not concede a point, shut the UWE offense down repeatedly. The Bullets found a rare first down midway through the second quarter but, on the next play, safety Ed Woolcott was able to pick the ball off to give the offense possession in a dangerous position.
After exchanging the ball, Cook dipped and dodged his way through tackles to send Cardiff knocking once more. And, following a clever pump fake and blitzing run, Cook battled his way into the endzone for the score. Kicker James Lloyd added the PAT, bringing up a 19-0 lead at the interval.
The third quarter remained scoreless with not too much to trouble either side. The fourth quarter continued in the same way as Cardiff began to bed in rookie players. A strong drive by the Bullets came to a halt once more, courtesy of the safe hands of Woolcott, who intercepted again and ran it back to the 40 yard line.
With UWE chasing the game, they abandoned the punt and repeatedly tried to advance on fourth down, but Cardiff held strong and their defense refused to give up any points. Alex Frost, making a rare appearance in the defense due to an injury to Harry Kirkham, made a big tackle in the backfield to stop a threatening UWE play as the Cobras closed the game out for the win and booked their place in the play-offs.
Coach Watkins was pleased with the team’s overall performance, commenting: “It was another good all round team game.
“The defense will be pleased to shut UWE out but they never really threatened to score, whilst they also gave the ball back to the offense in good field position.”
“The offense took their opportunities and scored points though the air and on the ground.”
Watkins, who enjoyed a season playing semi-professional football for the Helsinki Roosters in Finland over the summer of 2015, added: “The special teams pinned UWE deep to help both sides of the football out.
“We had a good week of preparation that was key and the scout work we do midweek has really shown itself to be beneficial come game day.”
The Cobras will have to be patient as they await their play-off fixture because the season still has a couple of weeks remaining, meaning that there is potential for a few twists to take place.
But, for now, Watkins is satisfied that his side have made the post-season: “It’s a great way to start the business end of the season. To have achieved six wins and have no points conceded at this stage is a great achievement for all involved.”
Nevertheless, Watkins wants his players to stay focussed as they look to finish strong, insisting: “It is only the first step for us as we are looking towards the play-offs as a chance to really show what we can do against other division leaders.”
Watkins, in his second season at the helm, believes reaching the play-offs has been a long time coming.
“It is great, as coaches and players we have been building the team up towards this point for those four years since we were last in the play-offs,” he said.
“Sadly, due to the high turnover of students in the university game, it can take some time to build a team up to the top of the division, but I am really happy with the job everyone has done in the last four years and the years before that to help get this team to where it is.”
No other Cobras team has held a 6-0 record without conceding a point, though the 1995-96 team did achieve a 5-0 record with the sixth fixture being declared a tie. Incidentally, that 95/96 team, led by Neil Harris, reached College Bowl X and the current Cobras team will hope that is a good omen as they attempt to repeat such achievements.