UEA Pirates Win Out In Derby Day Warm-Up

There are some fixtures in the sporting calendar that need no assistance from the hype machine: el Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Boston Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA, and of course, in American Football, UEA Pirates versus Essex Blades. It is a rivalry that runs deeper than the Rio Hamza. Last year the Pirates followed up a 32-0 home victory en route to the playoffs with a 32-2 Derby Day win, so expectations were high coming into this year’s fixture in Colchester.

The Essex defence came out with intent, forcing a three-and-out on the first drive. In what would have been another huge special teams play, after two turnovers in the season opener, the Pirates punt unit appeared to recover the ball. The Blades’ returner muffed Ed Everitt’s menacing punt, before Henry ‘Big H’ Schoen (MVP of the 34-0 victory over Canterbury after recovering two punts) knocked the ball into space for Patrick Sumner-Stokes to pounce on. However the referees ruled that the returner had not touched the ball, spotting it at the point of Schoen’s first contact. Instead of the Pirates offence having another first down on the Blades’ twenty yard line, Essex had possession from their own twenty-four.

After this early injustice the Pirates D took to the field, and started slowly by their own high standards. A sweeping run to the outside on second down moved the chains for Essex, and two downs later the same play run to the opposite side of the field gave them another first down. Then great pressure from the D-line and linebackers stuffed the Blades’ running back at the line and, coupled with great coverage from the defensive backs, forced two hurried throws from the Essex quarterback, which resulted in a turnover on downs.

The rest of the quarter continued in much the same vein, with the Pirates offence trying to find their rhythm and the defence working hard to keep them on the field. On the Blades’ second possession they just managed to gain another first down despite a pair of big tackles from team captain Piers Harrison-Reid. This resulted in a missed field goal attempt, returning the ball to UEA. After failing to gain ten yards once more, the Pirates were forced to punt the ball back. On this occasion, however, a mix-up saw the ball roll out the back of the end zone. This, known as a safety, gave Essex a 2-0 lead, and possession of the football again going into the next period. The safety was the same means by which Essex scored their only points in the derby fixtures last season, and seemed to serve as the stimulus for the Pirates hitting a new gear.

In the second quarter UEA’s defence was relentless, forcing three-and-outs on every Essex possession, helped along the way by tackles-for-loss from James Burley, Patrick Sumner-Stokes and club President Joe Mumford, a sack from Chris Kirchoff, and a shared sack by Mumford and Jason Howe before almost every Pirate on the field joined the gang tackle. Meanwhile the offence began to look a bit more like the unit that put thirty-four points on the board the week before. Running back Brad Walsh moved the chains for the first time with a speedy 12-yard sweep. Before the next possession, George Aust nearly pulled off an audacious punt return after breaking four tackles, but was tackled just before he reached open field. Starting quarterback Ross Aveyard was injured two plays later when tackled as he threw on the run, allowing rookie Matt Need to step up in his first derby contest. He oversaw two further first downs off the back of strong running from Walsh, before the final play of the half when Need’s pass to special teams captain Matt Ball fell inches short, with the Pirates approaching the end zone.

Quarterback Aveyard returned to the field for the second half and the Pirates offense continued to grow in confidence, but couldn’t manage to find the end zone. On the other side of the ball the defence was truly dominant, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs. These included two gang tackles-for-loss, one solo tackle-for-loss from rookie Jamie Girvan, and an important tackle from Ben Painter. Matt Ball’s punt return looked promising as he outran the Blades’ tacklers, but ran out of field in which to run on the sideline.

The ball stayed in Essex’s territory for most of the second half, and in the fourth quarter UEA edged towards the red zone, with time running out. After tackles-for-loss from Howe, James ‘Bad Man’ Sambandan and defensive captain Eoin Byrne, the home side were forced to punt. The ball slipped through the hands of the Blades’ punter, and ‘Big H’ dived on him as he recovered the ball giving the Pirates possession ten yards from the end zone. The offence gave the sideline some nervous moments, but ultimately Christopher Carson, last season’s team captain, ran in a pitch before punching home the two-point conversion to give UEA an 8-2 lead with just under three minutes on the clock.

The defence came out knowing that if they stopped Essex progressing the game would be won. They did just that, swarming all over the pitch and frustrating the Blades offence for three downs as they had all game. On fourth-and-long Essex decided to punt, effectively ceding defeat. Luck was on their side though, as the Pirates muffed the punt under increasingly torrential conditions, giving the home side another set of downs. The defence stayed on the pitch, kept their heads up, and won the ball back on downs. Aveyard then knelt the ball to run out the clock before the final whistle was blown.

After dominating a team one season it is easy to expect the same result the next, but in university sports, where scores of new players join season-to-season, it is a dangerous assumption. The Pirates went to Colchester hoping for another rout over their longstanding rival, instead they got a hard-fought battle over four quarters with the Blades. It was classic gridiron; a battle of the defences in conditions that stifled offensive flair. Ultimately the match was decided by big plays on special teams. The win lifts UEA to a 2-0 record, with the final fixture before Christmas coming at home against Kent Falcons. The Falcons beat the Pirates on their way to finishing one place higher in the division last year, so it will be a crucial fixture with likely play-off implications. Head down to Colney Lane and help cheer your undefeated UEA Pirates on to (hopefully) another victory. The game will kick off at 1PM, Sunday December 7.


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January 2022
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