By Twm Owen
A small piece of Welsh sporting history will be made this weekend when the first ever women’s American Football games to be staged in Wales are played.
The Cardiff Valkyries, the only women’s team in Wales, are hosting a four-team tournament at Penarth on Saturday and by late afternoon four full contact games will have been played, not on Welsh soil, but on the 3G artificial turf at St Cyres School.
“This will be the first time we’ve ever hosted a tournament, we’ve always been the team that has had to travel and we’ve been to Oxford, Portsmouth or Birmingham,” said Valkyries head coach Simon Browning.
On Saturday the Valkyries will face the Kent Exiles and Wembley Stallions while the Oxford Saints will also feature in the tournament which is part of the British American Football Association (BAFA) Sapphire Series played over five weekends from December to February.
Rather than playing a full 11-a-side game, that can last between two to three hours, the women play a stripped down 7V7 version on a shortened 40-yard long field in two 20-minute halves, with the clock only stopping in the last two-minutes of each.
Each team has three skill players and a quarterback as well as three players on the offensive line, which is two blockers short of the line-up in the traditional 11-man format.
The helmets and shoulder pads that are so commonly associated with gridiron football though remain and Browning feels the shortened version the teams play is a close replica of the traditional form.
“Sevens is more closely aligned to 11-a-side,” said Browning who credits the team’s concentration on 7V7 as having helped three of its players earn a place in the Great Britain training squad. The national team will compete in the 11-a-side European Championships next year.
“I’d like to think because we’ve given them a taste of what 11s is like it has been easier for them to make that step up.”
The Valkyries formed in early 2016 and competed in a five-a-side format in their first year and progressed to the seven-a-side league last winter while the team has also played in non-contact flag tournaments, including against men’s teams, over the summer months.
Ahead of Saturday’s tournament Browning is juggling injuries to put his best available team out to try and avenge defeats in the previous tournament to the Kent Exiles and division two south leaders Wembley Stallions.
Defensive back Elleanor O’Connell, one of three players named in the GB practice squad, is expected to return from injury though receiver Ruth Lewis, who has also been included in the training squad, will have to miss the debut home tournament due to a broken thumb.
“We’ve been decimated by injuries and there will be some players who won’t leave the field for both games, which will be fun,” said Browning.
Hosting their first tournament has presented a new set of logistical challenges for the team but is the realisation of an ambition it has held since its first training session nearly two years ago.
“We don’t have to pay for travel but it’s not a massive financial benefit as we have to pay for referees and the ground but it’s a benefit not to have to get up at five in the morning and drive four hours across the country and you are already tired before you’ve played.
“But this Saturday we can play at home, and try and get a few people there to watch us, raise the profile and hopefully pick up a few more players and also friends and family can come and watch so people’s partners, mums and dads and daughters can come and see what it is they do.”
The Cardiff Valkyries Sapphire series takes place at St Cyres School, Sully Road, Penarth CF64 2TP on Saturday, December 15 with simultaneous games kicking-off at 12 noon and 2pm.