The difference between peaking at the right moment and peaking too soon in the Emirates American Football League can be the difference between being on the field at the Desert Bowl and being in the stands.
The semi-final clash featuring the Abu Dhabi Wildcats and Al Ain Desert Foxes proved just that as the former stamped a third-straight trip to the title game, while the latter saw their reign as champions come to a bitter end in a 13-6 result at Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence on Friday.
It hadn’t been a pretty season for the Wildcats, who dropped their first four games before getting off the mark in the week before the playoffs. But when it mattered, the underdogs rose to the occasion and delivered.
“I knew these guys were capable of coming together and making the dance,” said Abu Dhabi coach Tony Robinson.
After Al Ain’s stingy defence had allowed 25 points all season, the Wildcats took control early with a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Ralphie Lega and a 45-yard scamper by running back Vivaldi Tulysse to go up 13-0 in the first quarter.
The Desert Foxes got back in the game on John Jones’ 4-yard touchdown run in the second period, but from there Abu Dhabi’s defence tightened up to keep their grasp on the lead.
Asked if Abu Dhabi were at all intimidated by the defending champions, Lega replied: “Not at all. We knew what we were capable of and the type of men we have on our team.
“Yeah they’re a good team and have some real good athletes, but at the same time we respect who we are and we have a lot of confidence in ourselves.”
On the other sideline, Al Ain coach Johnny Sharp was clearly upset with his players’ lack of execution.
The outspoken Sharp, who has been his team’s biggest critic, was clear in his assessment that the gameplan wasn’t the problem, saying he “coached a beautiful game”.
Sharp, who has been at the centre of the Desert Foxes emergence at both the youth and men’s level, was also noncommittal when asked if he’s returning next season.
“We’ll see. This is going to take a lot out of me,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of championship games and it just wans’t like this, so we’ll see.”
It was by no means an impressive victory for the top seed, but Zavier Cobb’s men did just enough to come out on top in a competitive game.
One week after kicking the game-winning field goal to make up for a dropped touchdown, Daniel Viranyi again redeemed himself by following up a fumble with a 4-yard grab for a score in second quarter. He also converted the extra point, which ended up being the difference in the contest.
“I have 1,000 per cent confidence in this guy and his abilities,” Cobb said of Viranyi. “He keeps his cool and I can always count on him under pressure. Yeah he might screw up throughout the game, but during times of pressure, he’s one of the guys I can call on.”
The Stallions’ season didn’t end without some fireworks as Matt Duncan connected with Christian Ridley on a 45-yard touchdown to close the gap, but the extra point conversion was no good.
Like Sharp, Stallions head coach Patrick Campos was unsure if he’ll be on the sidelines again next season.
Campos said: “It’s been an absolute honour working with those guys. It would be an honour to continue to work with them. And if the schedule permits and my lovely wife agrees, maybe I will.”
The Wildcats and Barracudas will meet in a rematch of the 2016 Desert Bowl at Dubai Sports City on Friday, March 16.
After playing to a draw in their first two head-to-head meetings, the Barracudas broke the deadlock with a last-second 3-0 victory to hand the defending champions their first defeat of the season at The Sevens on Friday.
Not only was the number one seed in the playoffs up for grabs in the clash, but both teams also put their unbeaten records on the line.
A contentious pre-game, in which the teams didn’t shake hands, was followed by a chippy contest that featured both defences at the top of their games.
With points at a premium, the Barracudas were able to seal the win on Daniel Viranyi’s 20-yard field goal with 35 seconds remaining.
“We wanted to take that momentum and we wanted that first seed,” said Viranyi. “Lot of trash talk before the game and I think it wasn’t quite what we were hoping for. Each team wanted to shut up the other team and it didn’t quite turn out that way. 3-0, lucky punch, but we’ll take it.”
The game’s hero nearly ended up as its zero after missing a field goal and dropping a would-be touchdown earlier.
But when given the green light by coach Zavier Cobb to line up for the eventual game-winner, Viranyi came through.
“I knew I could take the distance. Saw it in the first kick,” he said. “Coach trusted in me and that’s why I just took it. I didn’t think about it. Just up and in.”
The loss was a tough pill to swallow for Al Ain coach Johnny Sharp, who had been visibly upset whenever his team even allowed points this season.
Though a rematch with the Barracudas – which can only come now in the Desert Bowl – may be at the forefront of the Desert Foxes’ minds, Sharp knows they’ll have to clean up their mistakes before they can exact revenge.
“It’s a lot of work we need to do. We said that three times,” Sharp said.
“They won the game with less than two minutes to go with a good kicker. He’s a great kicker. We just hurt ourselves. I’m not taking anything away from the Barracudas because [Zavier] Cobb put together a solid game, but we made a lot of mental errors that we need to be able to do better, otherwise we won’t make it to the Desert Bowl.”
While one rematch will have to wait, the opening round of the playoffs will feature a rematch of last year’s Desert Bowl epic after the Abu Dhabi Wildcats earned their first win to move up to the three seed.
Tony Robinson‘s men have had an uncharacteristically poor season following consecutive Desert Bowl appearances, but they finally got off the mark by beating the Dubai Stallions 14-0 on Friday.
Justin Kirby reeled in a receiving touchdown to open the scoring for the Wildcats, before quarterback Robert Lega used his legs for a 7-yard rushing score and the 2-point conversion.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Robinson. “I knew the guys were capable of coming out and playing this way all season. It just took us a little longer than we anticipated and expected to put a win on the board.”
Though the Barracudas and Desert Foxes appear destined to battle it out at this year’s Desert Bowl, Robinson knows as well as anyone that regular season success doesn’t guarantee playoff triumph.
Which means the door is still open for Abu Dhabi to return to the big stage and capture a title that has been so elusive.
Robinson said: “We’re starting to peak at the right time and right when it matters and I think these guys are in it to try and make it to the dance.”
Ever since the Stallions lifted the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) Desert Bowl trophy back in 2015, wins have been more at a premium for a team that has suffered consistent turnover both on the field and on the sidelines.
But after coming away empty-handed through the first two weeks of this season, the Stallions got off the mark to earn head coach Patrick Campos his first victory with his new club by beating Abu Dhabi at The Sevens on Friday.
Offence had been a bright spot for the Stallions even in their two losses and the attack was impressive once again with Joe Chamberlain getting his first start at quarterback.
“It was amazing to get back under (centre),” said Chamberlain. “It’s been about six years since I last played QB. The last time I played we lost by about 44 so I’m quite glad we got the victory today and got the monkey off my back.”
There was little to celebrate for the Wildcats, however, as they remained winless by moving to 0-3 (one loss by forfeit).
It’s been a trying start to the season for Tony Robinson’s men after reaching consecutive Desert Bowls the past two years.
Once known for controlling the trenches, the Wildcats have struggled early on with line play.
“We have to have a little more pressure up front. I mean, our offensive line was pushed around a bit today,” said wide receiver and safety Paul Carrizosa.
“But we have a lot of faith in our guys. We need to get a little more time in practice, get some of the puzzle pieces back in order and I’m confident we can win football games.”
The top two of the teams in the league, meanwhile, battled to an 8-8 draw on Friday.
Each team’s offence was able to find the end zone this time, with Al Ain switching up their attack to finally score against the Barracudas’ stingy defence, which allowed their first points of the season.
“Our coach implemented a new offence and I think we executed it alright, considering we only had two days to practice it,” said Desert Foxes wide receiver and defensive back Te’andre McKinney. “A lot of our guys were injured so I think we did pretty good with what we had.”
On the other side of the ball, coach Johnny Sharp wasn’t pleased to see his defence surrender points again. So as he did two weeks ago, Sharp made his team run after the final whistle.
And McKinney expects some more tough love this week, saying: “I’m pretty sure we’re going to get it at practice.”
The Desert Foxes and Barracudas are knotted atop the standings with a 2-0-1 record, but the defending champions hold the tiebreaker with their superior point differential.