Saturday, December 3rd –Leichhardt Oval – 5:00pm Kick Off
• 1st Sydney University Lions (9-1-0) vs. 2nd West Sydney Pirates (8-1-1)
- Regular Season Result: Week 10, SYD 51 – 42 WST
Here we go. This is the big one. The Waratah Bowl will again be decided between these two powerhouses. Today, we’ll take an in depth look into the season 2016 for each team and some of the keys to the game for each team and how they can use these to get the W this weekend. Get excited ladies and gents, its Waratah Bowl XXXII week!!
Firstly we’ll start with the challengers for the title, the West Sydney Pirates. The Pirates started the season strong, with a number of big wins over the Mustangs, Gators and Cobras. Their first real test came in the form of the Predators. Last time we met the Pirates was in the semi-final for the 2015 season where the Pirates narrowly defeated the Preds 47-41, however they steamrolled over us and kept their winning streak alive. From then on, the Pirates juggernaut continued to steam through the league, with huge defeats over the Ducks and the Gators, who had a surprisingly disappointing season compared to that of recent years. A bye week in round 9 set up a Waratah Bowl XXXI rematch in week 10 between the Lions and Pirates. The Lions came out the victors in this one but the margin was indicative of how evenly matched both teams are. The Lions were able to take a commanding lead in the first half before the Pirates turned up in the second and brought the margin to within 2 points. This was to be outdone though by a late Lions TD to wrap the game up.
Following this game, the Pirates then faced another tough opponent in the UNSW Raiders. There is no doubt in my mind that when these two teams face each other, there will always be fireworks and it will always go down to the wire. The Pirates took a big lead in the first quarter, going up 22-6 before the Raiders bounced back and brought the deficit to within 8 points. The third quarter was similar to the first, in that the Pirates outscored the Raiders significantly and many thought they would wrap up a win. But the Raiders were resilient and fought back to just lose by 4 points in the last minute of the game. From an outside perspective, this showed me that the Pirates were beginning to show some cracks in their armour. Twice in this game, they had a 20+ point lead and their D turned off and allowed the Raiders to almost snatch the victory.
With this final regular season win, the Pirates cemented their place at second in the ladder and gave themselves a week off before the semi-finals. In the semis just passed this week, the Pirates took on the Raiders again in a much closer and hard fought game. The Raiders led for much of this one before the Pirates came back late in the 4th quarter. In both their last 2 games against the Raiders, the Pirates coaching staff will take away a lot of key points; mainly their D. The Pirates have always had a top-tier defense, however against the top teams, they are susceptible to allowing points scored against them. This will be the catalyst to their success in the Waratah Bowl; their D will need to stay focused all game and not let a big lead slip away from them.
Now we look to the 13 year defending champions, Sydney University Lions. This year will be the 17th consecutive year the Lions have made the Waratah Bowl, which is an absolutely incredible feat! The Lions came into this season with a new-look side to the one they won the Waratah Bowl with last season. Veteran QB Kiernan Dorney hung up his boots and their highly feared Offensive Line from the 2015 season also packed their bags and headed back to the UK. The Lions opened their season with a decisive win over the Gators (who called the game off during the third quarter due to injuries) before a crushing victory over the Seahawks in week 3. Many thought their week 4 game against the Predators would be an easy win (and maybe I am a little biased) but it was anything but easy. The Preds were able to being the deficit to within 5 points and proved to the league that the 13 time defending champions were not invincible.
The champs then faced the Rebels in a surprisingly tough game for them as well. When these two met last season, the champs crushed the Northern Sydney lads by 80+. What a stark contrast this game was in comparison to last season. The Rebels gave the Lions a run for their money and outscored them in the second and third quarters before the Lions turned up the heat and locked down the W and kept their undefeated streak rolling on. Following this close win, the Lions put the whole league on notice with their huge victories over the Sharks and Mustangs before the “Foundation Shovel” showdown with the Raiders in Round 9. The Raiders highly touted defence was on display against the Lions high-intensity offense, and the champs were able to come away with the W in this one. The Lions kept that momentum going with a W over the Pirates in round 10 before a shutout victory over the Cobras in week 11 to close out their regular season.
Finishing first on the ladder, the Lions had a week off before facing the Rebels again in the semi-finals. Another tough game for them, they were able to secure the win and book another date with the Pirates in Waratah Bowl XXXII. Consistency is the key for the Lions. If they are to be successful, they will need to be consistent in every play, wash off the mistakes and move on. A key loss late in the season was RB Alex Watson, who currently holds the Sydney University record for Most Career Rushing TDs. This never phased Coach Ogborne and the Lions as they were able to slot in RB Charles Adams who brings a different dynamic to the Sydney Uni rushing offense; where Watto is all power and brute strength, Adams is speed and agility. The Lions have continued to have a great offense and as long as they can continue moving the ball and keep the Pirates D on the back foot, they will be able to clinch the W.
West Sydney Pirates – Keys to the Game
Ground Offense: The Pirates have a highly touted ground game, behind starting RB Marlou Tacuge. In his 7th season with the Pirates, Tacuge has racked up 22 TDs this season, and behind the huge Offensive Line of the Pirates, he has thrived with huge rushing yards this season. Tacuge believes that if he and his O Line are able to start strong and keep the momentum going (unlike their previous matchup), this will be the key to walking away with the W this weekend; “we just didn’t play 4 quarters of Pirate football which we know we can.”
Defence: From someone who has played the Pirates and watched most of their games, they have one of the most athletic and diverse D’s in the league. Led by defensive captain FS Blake Wotton, the Pirates D have had moments of brilliance throughout the season (in the first 4 games of the season, they had allowed a total of 33 points; 3rd in the league) and some horrific moments (allowing UNSW to come back from a 22-6 lead to just win by 4 points, 50-46), but they are still a strong unit and have the capabilities of making life very hard for Lions QB Matt Hilley. In their last meeting, Wotton believes that some of the rookies “placed Sydney Uni on a pedestal” and they all had a “deer in the headlights” moment throughout the game. “Now the rookies know that they are another team; they eat, they sleep and they bleed just like us, I don’t think they will have that deer in the headlights moment.”
Sydney University Lions – Keys to the Game
Speed: Sydney Uni are known for their speed. Their O runs a no-huddle Offense and for the unsuspecting opponents, it can put them on the back-foot very quickly and tire them out. QB Matt Hilley said that if the O can “start fast and stay fast, we should be fine.” In their last meeting, the Lions O slowed down and allowed the Pirates D to ramp up and gain some momentum heading into the 4th quarter. Hilley was able to rally his O late to score and put the W just out of reach for the Pirates but this wasn’t good enough for the 13 year champs, or their new QB from Rowlett, Texas. “We need to control our emotions and stay even throughout the course of the game. Every play needs to be business as usual and we need to have a short memory after our mistakes,” Hilley remarked. No doubt this will be his words in the Lions huddle this Saturday.
Experience: There is no doubt that some of the Lions players have experience, particularly big-game/championship experience. A prime example is SS/LB Keenan Mackett. Mack has played a number of seasons for the Lions and is a key figure in the Lions fast D. And he will need to be on his A-Game this weekend as he will be going up against one of the top receivers in the league, in WR Kristian Gacuma (who holds a TD average of 1.5 TDs/game this season). Pirates QB David Ward and Gacuma link up like Peyton Manning and Demariyus Thomas and it is widely evident that Gacuma is Ward’s favourite receiver. I mean, let’s go back and look at the amazing, Odell Beckham Jr-like catch he made against UTS. Or the game winning TD he scored against the Raiders to book their spot in the Waratah Bowl. Mackett and the rest of his D will need to lock down the Pirates passing game and force them to go to Tacuge and run against the Lions big D Line. The experience of players like Mackett will help the Lions dictate where they want the Pirates to play and what they want them to do. Do this and you’re going home with a ring.
In closing, I honestly couldn’t pick a winner in this one. If you asked me at the beginning of the season, I would have said the Pirates were taking this one no doubt. But the Lions are the most dominant team in NSW in the last 14 years and they have persevered through a tough few weeks to go back to the powerhouse they were. This one is sure to have some fireworks. Get down to Leichhardt Oval and support the lads. And boys, good luck and hit hard.