Preview: AFI Gameweek 1

The views and opinions expressed in this article in no way reflect those held by American Football Ireland. The below article is intended to be entertaining and to build excitement around American Football Ireland games.

After a longer wait than we may have expected around this time two years ago, AFI American Football has finally returned! While last year’s Donaghy Group Invitational Cup and friendly series in the back end of 2021 helped tide a lot of us over, none of that can compete with the excitement and the drama of an AFI American Football season!

We are excited to bring more than 80 games across the country this year, from big rematches from the 2019 season and big rivalry games, to first-time-ever matches and (of course) our 3 divisions Bowl games, culminating with Shamrock Bowl XXXIV on August 7th at Energia Park.

With that being said, here is a preview for each game to look forward to this weekend:

AFI Premier Division

Belfast Knights (0-0) @ UCD (0-0) — UCD Sports Campus, 1pm
The Knights will be eager to truly leave their 2019 season in the past, finishing just 1-6-1 that campaign. Saying that, the Belfast outfit showed improvement in their 2021 series, winning both games. The Knights will surely rely on the playmaking of their passing offense trio in QB Spencer McDowell, and WRs Jordan Clinton and Marty Caskey to make a big impact and keep UCD’s defense honest throughout the game.

UCD will be looking to pick up where they left off 3 years ago after an impressive, if up-and-down, 2019 campaign. Finishing 5-2-1 and with the highest scoring offense in the division, UCD fell short of making it to Shamrock Bowl 33, which will surely be the aim for the club this season. A strong offensive line with Wolfhounds experience, a plethora of offensive weapons and a defense that has had names like DBs Michael Sykes and Alex Kusmirek in the secondary should make for a team to watch out for come the playoffs.

Expect a high-scoring affair in Belfield…

Dublin Rhinos (0-0) @ Craigavon Cowboys (0-0) — People’s Park, Portadown, 1pm
The Rhinos goal for this season may just be to simply forget about the last 3 years. 2019 was the Castleknock side’s return to the Premier Division, and while their 2-6 record kept them away from relegation, their points difference (-145) was the worst in the division that year. There is a lot to be positive about for the upcoming season if you’re following the Rhinos though: a good, stable coaching staff with Steve O’Rourke as Head Coach, a perhaps-revamped defense under DC Nick Newby (as seen by their 14-0 shutout @ Meath Bulldogs during their 2021 series), and a dual-threat QB in Ethan Foster.

Speaking of dual-threat QBs, Craigavon Cowboys signal-caller Peter Loughran can be as hard to stop on the ground as he is through the air. The Cowboys have quite a deep WR room for Loughran to offload the ball to too, with the likes of Eoin Hughes, Anton Nulty and speed-demon Luis Alberto all options for the ‘Boys to target on any given play. With a stout defense to boot (ranked #2 in 2019 AFI Division 1), Craigavon may be a dark horse moving forward.

Craigavon should be in control here but should be sure to not let their guard down and let the Rhinos work their way into the game.

AFI Division 1

Donegal/Derry Vipers (0-0) @ Trinity (0-0) — Trinity Sports Grounds, Santry — 1pm
The Vipers come into this game with, arguably, the most momentum out of any team competing across the island this year. Though their 2019 outing was certainly not what they had hoped — a 2-6 record with wins against the now-defunct Galway Warriors and Waterford Wolves — their 2021 went about as well as they could have hoped. Going 4-0 in the Donaghy Group Invitational Cup and winning the tournament, the QB change to Paul O’Donnell seemed to bring the squad together better than we had seen throughout 2019, keeping the Vipers above 20 points per game across the 4 game tournament. Add a strong run game and defensive play from the likes of LB Darren Quinn and CB Marty Patton, and Donegal/Derry have a solid base that could bite teams that don’t match their physicality.

Trinity come in as a polar opposite to the Vipers in more ways than one. A successful 2019 season for the students saw them finish with a 6-2 record and with the #4 seed in the playoffs, falling short in the semi-finals to eventual Division 1 champions Craigavon Cowboys. The pandemic was a lot harsher to Trinity than it was to the Vipers, though, with the university team unable to compete until November 2021 in an Intervarsity blitz with UL and UCD. Trinity came out 0-1-1 from that blitz, but surely saw development from rookies recruited as far back as 2020. If the team can get close to replicating the form they had in 2019, Trinity may well be a title contender come the end of the Division 1 season.

As for this game, early control of the scoreboard will probably decide this game. With such differing ideologies on both sides of the ball and each team’s strengths playing into the other’s weaknesses, whoever can slow down the other first — even for a drive or two — should see this one out.

Wexford Eagles (0-0) @ UL Vikings (0-0) — Maguires Playing Grounds, Limerick, 1pm
Wexford enter their first season without longtime Head Coach Kevin Klatt, who joined the South Dublin Panthers coaching staff during the pandemic. Because of this, it’s hard to say exactly what version of the Eagles we will see in 2022. Wexford finished the #3 seed in Division 1 in 2019 with a 6-2 record and the #2 Offense in the Division. Being in a tightly-contested division, emulating that production on offense will be a top priority in the Model County.

UL, while perhaps not quite as uncertain as Wexford, also come into 2022 with question marks that will be answered this Sunday and throughout the year. Posting a 3-5 record in the 2019 Premier Division, the Vikings took the step down to Division 1 this season after the pandemic robbed them of some key pieces on both sides of the ball. Despite the large rookie membership, UL still have some recognizable names — QB Eoin Rudkins stands out — and will certainly lean on that experience to bring such a young squad up to speed.

Both teams need a statement win on Sunday. Wexford have always been a gritty team that have threatened some Division 1 goliaths in the past, but it’s hard to overlook UL’s Premier Division experience that includes 7 consecutive Shamrock Bowl appearances.

AFI Division 2

Causeway Giants (0-0) @ NI Razorbacks (0-0) —  Newforge Playing Fields, 1pm
The Giants may come into this as at least the popular favourite in this game, thanks in large part to their unique cyan-coloured kits and an incredible touchdown run during the Donaghy Group Invitational Cup from Tiernan Boorman that so closely resembled Washington Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke’s score against the Buccaneers during the 2020-21 NFL Playoffs that Heinicke himself shared the play to his followers online. A 1-7 2019 season was wiped somewhat from memory after a respectable showing during the DGI Cup last year — improving their points per game from 6.25 in 2019 to 17.5 in 2021 — the Giants will want to build from that series and begin their push to playoff spots this season. 

The NI Razorbacks had a similar 2019 campaign to the Giants, also finishing 1-7, but come into this season after a winless 2021 series. A deeper squad than what the Razorbacks have seen in the past, we can probably expect from the team a run balanced offense with a lot of rotation to keep defenses guessing.

Two teams looking to move on from their 2019 performances here so it will likely be an especially physical game. These two have met each other plenty of times already in the Giants’ short history, with the Giants last match (a 3rd place game in the DCI Cup) 22-7.

Quickfire score predictions:
Knights 20 – 24 UCD
Cowboys 28-10 Rhinos
DDV 13 – 21 Trinity
Wexford 10 – 24 UL
Giants 17 – 7 Razorbacks

This season promises to be one of the most exciting in AFI history! Make sure to get in touch with clubs and let them know you’ll be supporting them on gameday. If you can’t make it to a game, make sure to follow along on our Facebook and Instagram pages where you can stay updated on final scores, touchdown scorers and more!