This Saturday August 27th, Mandemakers Stadion, Waalwijk Hollandwill witness the first ever game for Team Ireland as they face the Dutch Lions in Holland. This will be a monumental occasion for all involved with the Irish American Football Association as they commence their tenure into international football, and the competition will certainly be fierce.
The IAFL has continued to grow its stature in Ireland with now three full contact leagues and several flag teams scattered across the island. With Irish football at an all-time high, the Irish American Football Association decided that 2014 would be the perfect time to build the national side. Two years later and the Irish team are soon to embark onto the International stage, but this will be a whole different ball game.
In order to describe the transformation that has taken place, we spoke with running back coach and NFL-Ireland editor, Steve McDonnell to give his thoughts on how the team is shaping up ahead of the big game.
To my mind, the work goes back beyond those 2 years’. Steve explained. ‘The u20s team that was brought into existence before that, by force of will of a very few including our Head Coach Ciaran O’Sullivan and others like Terry Lynch and John Judge. That team was the inception of this one and it’s really a source of pride for me to have coached on that team and now on this one.’
To see some of the players who’ve been with us all the way from then until now is particularly pleasing. This team got off the ground with over 80 players involved and coaches from across the league. In the intervening time some coaches have moved on and the playing squad has been whittled down over time. A lot of guys who were there on day one are still with us now and there’s more than a few who have played their way in to the squad.’
With the foundations in place, the Irish team can now train at top of the range facilities, occupied by some of the leading associations in Irish sport.
‘The level of professionalism has come on leaps and bounds. We started in very fine surroundings in Johnstown House but now we make our home in the National Sports Campus along with the Irish Olympians and the training complexes for the FAI (soccer) IRFU (rugby) and the GAA (gaelic). American Football to have earned its place in that company is really one of the biggest signs of progress for the sport here.’
The Lions will prove to be stiff opposition on Saturday, but the Irish contingency have continued to focus on working to their own strengths.
‘We haven’t been overly focusing on them. Obviously we’ve done our homework and feel comfortable in our preparation for what to expect but our focus has been on preparing ourselves to perform at the highest level possible. I think we have an advantage that we’re somewhat of an unknown quantity on the International stage. Obviously the Trojans and others have had success in the Atlantic Cup in recent years but we have some high quality players from across all 3 divisions, a lot of whom aren’t at clubs that have played in Europe yet. I feel confident in our preparation and our ability’.
There might be a few people who will see this being a one-sided game given the contrast in experience between the sides. However, McDonnell is adamant that the players won’t be there to just make up the numbers.
‘We are coming to win! We’re new on the International Scene but there’s no value in just showing up. It’ll be a good indicator of where we are in the scheme of things and what improvements we need to make to take it on to the next level. The sport here is still small. To improve both domestically and internationally we need to get more athletes into the sport. Raising the profile by having a successful elite program and giving everyone playing football on the island something to shoot for can only be positive for the sport’
Holland has come a long way
On the opposite sideline this weekend will be none other than the hosts, the Dutch Lions. The Netherlands National team has been a force on the international circuit for years having undergone a transformation of their own in 2012.
They are a well organised team, brimming with talent with players occupying various teams throughout the country and across Europe. The domestic league, American Football Bond Nederland (AFBN) includes one of Europe’s most successful sides, the Amsterdam Crusaders. The Crusaders clinched their 18th title this year with a 40-6 win over the 010 Trojans from Rotterdam back in April. They also recently competed the European Football League final against Frankfurt Universe, narrowly losing 35-21. It goes to show that both football domestically and internationally is thriving in Holland.
The man who started this vision is Claudio Bartolozzi. With the national program in need of a re-organisation going forward, Bartolozzi took the reigns of the Lions in 2012. He’s helped the team become the force they are today. Along with his coaching staff, he has created an exciting event for Saturday. He believes his team will be ready to go come game-day.
‘>After the European Championship in 2012, we decided that in order to become better and more successful we had to set up an on-going program. So we organized an international friendly against Poland the year after against Belgium, followed by Spain, Czech Republic and Switzerland. This time we are a completely different team and organization compared to 4 years back.’
‘From those exhibition games, the Lions soon had a side capable of competing on a bigger scale. The Netherlands will be competing in IFAF Europe Group B competition against the Czech Republic on September 16th. They’ll battle with the top sides of Russia, Switzerland and Great Britain in Worcester, United Kingdom. Team Ireland will provide a fresh challenge as they prepare for competitive competition’
‘It is looking good! Each year you are not 100% sure of the players we will have available for the games. But we have been able to keep an important part of the group together and are ready to take on Ireland.’
Following their game with Ireland, they will head to the UK. They will play one last preparation game before their big clash with the Czech Republic.
Saturday’s fixture will produce an excellent game of football that will welcome Team Ireland onto center stage of European football. This will be a challenge that the Irish squad will have never faced before, but that adds to the excitement with kickoff merely days away. This will provide a strong indication of where Irish football stands in Europe and will offer plenty of encouragement for the future. Can the Irish boys defeat the Lions in their own den?
Netherlands v. Holland
August 27th, Mandemakers Stadion, kickoff 7 pm. (8 pm Irish time).