This weekend begins the second International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Europe Qualifying Tournament in Worcester, England.
Sixways Stadium in Worcester is hosting the international fixtures that features the national American football teams from Great Britain, Russia, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.
The Dutch Lions are the Netherlands national team and will face the Czech national team in the first round on Friday. The winner get a chance to qualify for the European Championships in 2018!
American Football International spoke with the Netherlands Special Teams coach Steve Sheppard, a Brit coaching American football… for the Dutch!
AFI: Coach Sheppard, what are your thoughts on the team? How are they as a group?
Sheppard: We have a great bunch of guys who are a tight group. The Dutch league is small and we have to select from just a few hundred players so most of them know each other very well. We have quite a few players and coaches with international experience at both club and national levels, with our selection including players who have experience in various European leagues, US Colleges, and even the NFL. That is very important for us, as we often get players who are not used to a football environment such as the one we are trying to create.
AFI: Are there any individuals that stood out to you? Any specific top players on the team we should be sure to keep an eye out for?
Sheppard: Having Ricky Tjong-a-tjoe with us now is a great bonus. He’s not only a very good football player, but also invaluable to have around the team. He knows what it takes and is a great role model for the newer members of the squad. We do have a number of athletes who are all capable of being a stand out player, but our strength is working as a unit. We will undoubtedly have to work together to have success against these opponents.
AFI: How have you prepared the team for this game?
Sheppard: We’ve had a couple of camps and a few loose practices. Our last camp was this weekend. We also played a practice game against Ireland a couple of weeks ago which, sadly, was abandoned after a half due to lightning. It was important to practice the whole game day experience in a loud stadium with a few thousand fans before we came to the UK – most of our guys are used to playing on a field in front of 50 people and a couple of dogs! Now they know how it is so there will be no stage fright.
AFI: Have you brought in any coaches for these games? If so, who? What do they bring to the team?
Sheppard: No. Can’t afford it so they are stuck with us! ?. No, but seriously, we are sticking with our Netherlands based coaches. Head Coach Rey Agaoglu is doing a great job and it’s always an honour to work under him.
AFI: Can you tell us your thoughts on the Czech team?
Sheppard: Well obviously they are a very strong team at this level. The majority of their squad is from the Prague Black Panthers who play in the Austrian league – only the GFL compares in quality within Europe. Practicing and playing together several times a week means that we know they have a big advantage in terms of cohesion. We played them two years ago in Prague and lost a close one 12-6 so we are well aware that they have an abundance of big strong boys! Their quarterback Jan Dundacek is particularly dangerous, and tends to come through when the chips are down. But we think we have a good plan. I see that the seeding has us as clear underdogs. We are not travelling to the UK for the experience. We are coming to prove that seeding wrong.
For me personally, it’s wonderful to be able to do it in my original home country, representing my adopted home country! I’m sure I will see a few familiar faces during the tournament.
AFI: What does it mean to the Dutch Lions to play in this qualifying tourney? Can you talk about the goals of the Dutch National team program?
Sheppard: We have been aiming at this tournament (or whatever form it would take) since 2013. It has been our one consistent focus. The initial goal was to win the C Group and advance to the B Group. Now the format has changed, that goal also has to change to winning this tournament. We would much rather have a competitive target next year to play Sweden or Denmark than to wait 3 years for the next competitive games.
As a program the goal is a little wider. We wanted to give Dutch players a realistic next level to which to aspire if they are not one of the lucky few in a position to go to US HS and obtain a college scholarship. There has been nothing like that in the Netherlands since the NFLE plug was pulled and the Amsterdam Admirals were disbanded. We have a squad bigger than 45. Just because we can only take 45 doesn’t mean we won’t continue with our larger squad and aim to develop them further.
The Dutch Lions organisation aims to have trickle down effect to the Dutch club teams and positively assist those who look for advice and help on how to run their program, practices, preparation – everything from technique through X’s and O’s to organisation. That’s also something which we’ve sorely missed since the demise of the Amsterdam Admirals. We also run seminars and our coaches visit team practices to this goal.