Not many people are aware but American football has quietly developed quite a fan base in Ireland over the past decade. So much so, that there is now a vibrant playing scene to it too. Yesterday, the UCD team hosted the Craigavon Cowboys. The Circular went along to get an insight into how and why people get involved.
After the match, which ended in a 28-7 victory for the home side, we spoke with UCD head coach Dave Murphy. Dave recently had to give up playing to fill the role of head coach. He told us that since he first began in 2009, there has been a huge growth in player numbers. He harked back to a game in his freshman year where they did not have enough players to cover every position for one match. Some people had to double up and play both offensively and defensive, which is an alien concept in the sport as each position is so specialised. Murphy stated that, ‘Now we have competition at virtually every position which is fantastic.’
When quizzed on the safety concerns regarding the sport, he responded by saying, ‘It is definitely getting better. There is now a concussion protocol in place.’ It was implemented by the governing body, the Irish American Football League. Murphy bemoaned the fact, however, that it was a copy of the IRFU’s concussion protocol. He was keen to emphasize that while both are very physical sports, the impacts incurred are completely different. In rugby, rules are in place to guarantee players wrap up in the tackle whereas in American football, there are fewer restrictions leading to more head-on collisions. Murphy did end on a high note though, explaining that every match has an ambulance with three paramedic staff pitch-side.
Murphy was also keen to stress that there is a misconception about someone needing to be enormous in order to be able to play. He described that as ‘only one respect.’ Qualities which he feels are even more important include explosiveness, a willingness to study a lot of strategical elements that make up the play book and a good attitude to commit to regularly showing up to training. That is held three times week during the season, which lasts from March until June. Murphy also mentioned that newcomers of all standards are always welcome at the beginning of the college year. The sport is accessible for those without experience as Murphy estimated, ‘about 80-90% of our guys have never played before coming to college here.’
Interest in the sport peaks around February when the Super bowl takes centre stage in the global sporting calendar. Murphy remarked that, ‘that’s something you often hear people say, that they were in a bar at a Super bowl party and thought, Jesus that looks interesting, must give that a go.’ The popularity of the sport in Ireland has risen so much in recent years that new teams are continually being formed and once they get to a certain standard, are added to the league that UCD compete in. It currently has nine teams across two divisions. Teams play an eight game season which leads to a four team playoff and ultimately, what has been dubbed the ‘Shamrock bowl.’
Connor Larkin, a linebacker on the team, also carried out an interview with us. He was hugely positive about the sport, placing it above soccer and softball as the most enjoyable one he has played in his life. When quizzed on its physicality and injuries suffered as a result, he said, ‘I’ve hurt my shoulder a couple times because I have to tackle a lot, but nothing too bad.’ When I asked him to explain the rules regarding tackling, he demonstrated with me as prop how you can pretty much do anything to get your opponent to the ground. The only exceptions are eye gouging, pulling on their facemask, Horse Collar tackles or going high on someone while they are in the process of catching a pass. In this situation they are deemed a ‘defenceless receiver’. This right no longer extends to them, however, when they catch the ball and turn as they are then considered a ‘runner.’ He echoed his coach’s thoughts on the mental side of the game really being the biggest challenge. He still remembers how in his first year, he needed every last practice from September until opening day in March to be truly ready to participate in a competitive match.
All gear, apart from cleats, is provided by the club once members have paid their annual fee of €15. Murphy said that in his experience though, that it is not long before people get hooked on the sport and invest in their own pair of pads for around €100. This helps maximise comfort and can potentially improve one’s performance. This is because people of varying heights and physiques ideally require different pads. They can be quite restrictive otherwise.
After an impressive win, UCD now look ahead to a tough away game against perennial contenders University of Limerick. Both sides are undefeated at 3-0 and there was a palpable sense of nervousness yet excitement at the prospect of tougher challenges ahead. Connor Larkin summed it up when he said, ‘Big game next week, UL are always tough.’ It is fair to say that much like in-game efforts to score a touchdown, the sustained effort to win a championship over the course of an arduous season is a process of grinding it out one step at a time, with a big payoff at the very end.