The Rhinos Season – A Year in the IAFL

Photo by Louise Maggie McPherson

As some of you may know, in addition to watching football, analyzing football, talking

football, writing about football and reading about football, I also play football.

I like the game, so sue me.

This isn’t the NFL or anything we’re talking about, but over in Ireland I play for the West Dublin Rhinos of the Irish American Football League (IAFL), and our season just ended with a 7-2 loss at the hands of the Carrickfergus Knights.

That part pretty much sucked.

But now that the dust has settled, I thought I’d write a little bit about the season we just had, with a particular focus on things from my point of view, because, well… it’s my blog.

The Pro Football Focus season doesn’t really allow me to have a second to myself until the new year when the regular season ends, at which point pre-season training for the Rhinos was already long-underway.  I arrived down already with a decision to make – wide receiver or defensive back?

When I played for the DCU Saints before the team folded I had been a wide receiver.  I have decent speed, run good routes, and have OK hands, but I was never really confident enough and in this league playing wide receiver can result in some long days at the office without seeing the ball come anywhere near you – that can be incredibly frustrating.  Last season I played cornerback in my first season for the Rhinos but wasn’t atop the depth chart, and sitting on the bench was even less fun and more frustrating than playing but not seeing the ball at receiver.

In the end one look at the offensive playbook made my decision for me.  I wanted no part of that tome, and figured I’d fight to earn a spot on defense, where I felt more comfortable playing anyway.

It turns out that catching a ball is so much easier when it’s not intended for you.  On offense I have OK hands, on defense they’re pretty good!

Of course it wouldn’t be football season without a silly injury to report, and in quick fashion I hyperextended both knees, one after the other. The first one came from free safety when I broke up a pass coming down the seam only to have the receiver run through my knee when I was in the air.  That hurt.  The second time was in far more ridiculous circumstances.  Short on linemen one training session I stepped in at nose tackle and proceeded simply to shoot the gaps to try and get into the backfield.  It was going pretty well until I got a shove in the back and put all my weight down on my hyperextended leg, which responded with a discouraging crunching sound and a not inconsiderable amount of pain!  That not only hurt, but necessitated some time off to try and heal.

It sidelined me for a while, and more to the point, hammered my fitness levels that were already dodgy after the PFF season of analysis.  I’d lost my speed, and that was my biggest weapon.  The first half of the season would be spent trying to get that both fitness and speed back.

The season started well for the Rhinos.  I was playing backup at RCB, and late in the game  got myself my first interception as a Rhino on a post pattern from my wide receiver.  I made a decent return down the far sideline and ended up stepping out of bounds when there was a chance to keep going and get in the end zone.  I had braced for a hit that never came as the opposing player instead shot clean past me, but of course by that time I was absolutely wrecked and couldn’t bring myself to start running again!  We won that game comfortably, and probably let it get to our heads a little.

The next game we lost a close one at home to the Belfast Trojans, probably the best team we faced all season, and one that went on to an as-yet undefeated season (they play in the playoff semi-finals soon, and have yet to lose).  We dropped our next game as well in similarly close fashion to the Dublin Rebels, perennial powerhouses in the league.

At 1-2 we didn’t have a great record, but we had run two of the best teams in the league extremely close, and wel felt good about ourselves, but then came the Cork game.

We had hired arguably the worst coach driver in the history of humanity to drive us down to Cork.  I’m relatively certain that with five minutes training I could get a chimp to give a better effort than this guy managed.

He didn’t top 7 miles an hour on the journey down or back (may be inaccurate, but not by much!), and one of our players that drove himself arrived back in Dublin a clear 3 hours before us. At one point on the road we were overtaken by a horse transport container lorry.  When i say overtaken, I don’t mean gradually either, I mean it smoked us!  When we arrived at Cork we then discovered that the Admirals had decided to set up shop on the side of a hill.  The pitch listed both north-south and east-west, and was covered in ankle-breaking holes.  It would have been a pretty good venue for some kind of hill-climb fitness test, or for that crazy cheese-rolling thing they outlawed in the UK, but for football? Hell no.  Changing rooms consisted of a pair of shipping containers with benches nailed to the inside.  There is no way that pitch should be allowed for a sport like this, it was flat out dangerous, and it’s a disgrace that it passed whatever standards the league has for facilities.

That day was one of those nightmare days from start to finish.  We ended up on the end of a 26-0 ass-kicking, failing to stop the run, and then getting beat against the pass too.  Individually I got my ass handed to me as badly as the rest of us.  I coughed up a touchdown on a deep pass when I tried to turn and stumbled in one of those ankle-breaking holes I mentioned earlier.  That meant not only was I late getting to the pass, but I was perfectly late enough to take out the corner who was chasing it down, allowing the WR to walk into the end zone.  Even when I was in good coverage they were fitting the ball into tight windows and getting the points.  We just didn’t turn up that day, and it dropped us into a 1-3 hole.

After going 1-1 in our next two games the only thing keeping us alive was the division we were in, which featured a runaway leader (Belfast) and then a gaggle of sides each with losing records and all playing each other in the final games to decide who would make the playoffs.  We first took out Craigavon at home and then traveled up to Carrickfergus, defeating them and securing a home playoff game, against the same team two weeks later.

We were in a good position.  A home playoff game against the team which we had just defeated on the road.

Over the course of the season however we had lost some serious players on offense in particular.  Our starting quarterback had left the country (not because of us, honest…), and our second string had injured his ribs, leaving Sean Power, a veteran RB/WR to step in and lead the team at QB.  His top target at WR had also been injured (and THEN left the country), and there had been injuries at running back as well.  It’s also worth pointing out that Sean himself had been banged up and wasn’t exactly 100% back there.  All this led to the offense predictably struggling to put points on the board.

The playoff game remained scoreless for most of its duration, with the defense holding the visitors well and generating turnovers throughout the game, but we just couldn’t get points on the board.  I tweaked a hamstring and had to leave the game after half time, and of course then they start the passing.  They were able to mount one drive all game and it was enough to put a touchdown up and secure the win.  We moved down the field but couldn’t match the score, falling to a 7-2 loss and bowing out of the playoffs.

Looking back on the year I think we had the talent to contend, but with the injuries we suffered and hole we dug ourselves with losses to Belfast and the Rebels, it was always going to be tough to advance in the final few games.

I enjoyed my time playing safety, usually as a single high coverage player in our defense, and notched four interceptions as well as a few big PDs.  I might have had more if we had been able to stop the run and force teams to the air down the stretch, but we had some struggles in that area (myself included).  Eoin Fox, a great linebacker for us and often the linebacker dropping the deepest in coverage, also did his best to keep my interception tally where it was, knocking at least a couple away from me at the last second and barreling towards me at speed as I went to get another one or two.  The single biggest hazard to my ballhawking didn’t come from the opposition, but from the threat of Foxy destroying me while airborne! If I had to guess I’d say he takes pride in that!

In the end I got back to something approaching full fitness, something approaching full speed, and started to get pretty comfortably at safety after a full season playing there.

With this season under our belts maybe the Rhinos can legitimately challenge for silverware in 2013?

4 thoughts on “The Rhinos Season – A Year in the IAFL

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