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In depth: American football’s Welsh home

American football is riding the crest of a wave of popularity and is truly establishing a home in Wales.

Just a short drive away from Cardiff is The Dairy Field in Llanharan, home to one of Britain’s top American football teams. The South Wales Warriors play in the Premier South, at the top tier of Britain’s amateur league.

Now the Warriors want you to join them, they are currently in the midst of a recruitment drive. On the back of promotion in 2011 and league restructuring in 2012, the team has been looking to strengthen itself and put up a championship challenge at the top of Britain’s amateur game. It comes at a time when the sport is experiencing some of the highest participation levels it has ever seen in the UK.

Fits like a glove: more people than ever in the UK include American football amongst their favourite sports

Fits like a glove: more people than ever in the UK are getting involved in American football, kitting up to play regularly.

Heading up the Warriors’ campaign is recruitment coordinator James Henderson. He says, “We are currently running four regional taster sessions which will ultimately lead into our main tryouts day in January.”

Whilst the Warriors are competing against some of the best teams in the UK, Henderson stresses that you do not necessarily have to be the next Tom Brady to join them. He says, “No previous playing experience is required, just a will to try something new.”

The recruitment drive is not just about bringing in new players; the Warriors are also doing their bit to raise the profile of American football in general. Henderson explains the drive is intended not just to “attract prospective players but also raise awareness of the sport.”

Transatlantic crossing

The public’s interest in the game is clearly growing and that can be seen in the increased media coverage of both games and news surrounding the sport. American football is regularly making headlines with widespread speculation surrounding the possibility of a National Football League (NFL) team being established this side of the Atlantic.

Every year since 2007, the UK has welcomed the NFL to its shores. This year saw three fixtures played at Wembley, the first time that this has happened since the introduction of the NFL’s International Series.

The impact of the NFL’s International Series is certainly not to be ignored; the sport is witnessing an increase in engagement with participation in the sport up by 15% from its 2007 levels.

Students of the sport 

The sport’s popularity is well demonstrated at university level, where American football is now played as part of the British Universities and Colleges Sport setup. Before the first Wembley game there were 42 teams competing at university level, now there are 75 registered teams. More than 4,000 players, coaches and officials are involved at this level.

Cardiff is no exception to this trend; students in the city are showing a higher level of involvement in the game than has been the case previously. This year Cardiff University’s team, the Cardiff Cobras, boasts a roster of around 70 players. The commitment to the sport has even led to the University installing dedicated American football posts at its playing fields in Llanrumney.

What is striking is that there is a number of players on the Cobras team that have never played American football before and some that hardly followed the sport in any way until they joined. For many of the Cobras the decision to take up the sport was largely curiosity – and perhaps a passion for brute force and aggression.

This is made clear when speaking to some of this year’s ‘rookies’. Running back, Billy Rowlands, 19, made the transition to his newly chosen sport having previously been a rugby player, which is fairly typical of British American football players. He explains, “It was the opportunity to try something new, that wasn’t rugby.” When asked what he enjoys about the sport he puts it simply, “contact and scoring touchdowns.”

Another of the newest additions to the Cobras’ team is linebacker Nathan Pinel, 20, who is also a rugby convert. For him, it was the team spirit that lured him. He says, “The hype, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. The day of a game when everyone’s cheering, even if you’re not on the pitch you’re part of the team. 

“To be honest, half the reason I joined was because the guys who are part of the team seemed so great. It was nothing like any of the other sports clubs I’ve joined at uni, they’re just family.”

In a game where every play counts and a single false move by just one player could jeopardise success, the fraternity between players is understandable. The discipline and commitment needed to perform, even at amateur level, sets it aside from the likes of pub football (soccer) on a Sunday morning.

With more and more people taking up American football, it is fair to say that the South Wales Warriors can probably expect a fair few more faces arriving at The Dairy Field. For diehard supporters, ex rugby players and beyond, the message is clear: those looking to try something different should give American football a punt.