Touching down with a new craze
We love football, rugby and cricket in this country. Golf, tennis, horse racing too.
But show us sport from America and the chances are we’ll have a negative opinion of it.
Baseball? A watered-down version of cricket, or ‘silly boys’ rounders’ as Del Boy called it in Only Fools And Horses.
American football? Just a poor form of rugby in helmets.
Or at least that used to be the perception. Because gridiron is busy taking the UK by storm and is growing with popularity with each season.
Superbowl parties are held and the NFL’s decision to host three games per season in this country has also heightened the sport’s profile over here.
Big crowds recently packed out Wembley and Twickenham for American football matches and there is even talk of a franchise potentially coming to the UK.
Teams are cropping up across the country and the Portsmouth Dreadnoughts are a club on a steep upward curve.
Approaching their fourth season, they have gone from strength to strength and hope to be gunning for promotion in a few years,
They recently held a taster day at their Havant Rugby Club base to introduce people to the sport and recruit promising new players.
The Dreadnoughts formed from a group of friends who had developed a passion for the sport.
Head coach Luke Head-Rapson, 28, says: ‘The club formed from a group of us throwing a football around on Southsea Common.
‘I starting playing football when I was at university, along with other sports like MMA.
‘We wanted to start up and make a team of our own and then joined the Dreadnoughts, who had only been running a few months.
‘We played three friendly matches to show that we could raise a team and we got accredited by the British American Football Association.
‘For a football team, you need at least 30 players - but we’d really like a squad of at least 35-40 to cover injuries and other things.’
Having been forced to retire at an early age due to a series of knee injuries, Luke was asked to take on the coaching role with the Dreadnoughts.
‘All the lads were really supportive of me when I took over. Even though I was a former player, they treat me like a coach.
‘I don’t think it would have been possible to have done the job otherwise.
‘Kids are now starting to grow up with American football because of all the coverage on Sky Sports.
‘I definitely think one day people will take it up at a younger age.
‘Equipment can be expensive but we have plenty of kit to go around for anyone that wants to come down and have a go, plus we have team insurance.
‘We understand that most people have not played the sport before and that it can take time.
‘It is quite simple to build into. For me, the physicality and the competitiveness is what I really enjoy about it.’
Most of the Dreadnoughts players got hooked on the sport by watching it on Sky Sports week after week,
For Jake Hancock, who was voted Players’ Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player last season, it took just one watch.
Jake, 25 from Havant, says: ‘One Sunday night I watched the NFL on Sky Sports and I really wanted to try it out.
‘I went along to the university tryouts but I wasn’t eligible. I was then told about the Dreadnoughts and I’ve been playing since.
‘I obviously worked hard last season and I registered 14 sacks for the season.
‘We do a lot of travelling for games, but it is all worth it.
‘I’d tell anyone who is interested in getting involved to just give it a go.’
The club could not run without the hard work of the volunteer coaches.
Mick Hogan has been involved in the sport since taking it up in 1984. Throughout that time he’s coached at the highest levelin this country and toured America with the Great Britain university team in 2004.
Mick, 55, who is the offensive co-ordinator for the Dreadnoughts, says: ‘I got involved in coaching because there were a lot of kids who wanted to play but nowhere for them to do it.
‘When I got into getting involved in the universities, there were something like 90 teams – now there are more than 130.
‘Football was the reason I moved down to Southampton. I was living in London beforehand and after years of travelling, I eventually moved down.
‘I’ve never been paid for my roles. Anything I have made, I’ve always put back in by buying new equipment and other things.
‘I don’t like to imagine how much money I have spent over the years!’
After months of being asked to help out, Mick admits he is loving coaching the Dreadnoughts.
‘There is a real family feel at the club. You go to some clubs and it is quite political. But everyone is really friendly here and there is a great vibe.
‘The most satisfying thing for me is seeing people progress and getting an idea of what their best position will be.
‘They don’t think they are improving, but we can see that they are. We’re used to coaching complete beginners and it’s like baking a cake with new recruits as it all eventually comes together.’
‘Many people get an idea from watching about where they want to play on TV, but we get other ideas when we drill them.
‘For the upcoming year, I’d really like for us to have a winning season. We’ve improved every year and the aim is to be winning the championship in two years.
‘There are more people getting involved in the sport from a younger age.’
Mike Woolnough, defensive line coach, adds: ‘I love the coaching side. It is great seeing people improve.’
LIVING THE DREAM
The dream for anyone in the Dreadnoughts would be making it in the NFL.
Club secretary Jo Samonig’s son, Tom (pictured), is living that dream by playing college football in Austin, Texas.
Jo, 52, from Lee-on-the-Solent, said: ‘Football was what brought Tom out of his shell. Beforehand, he didn’t find a sport that worked for him.
‘When he first started he couldn’t run, but he loved it instantly and now he’s considered to be an elite athlete over there.
‘He moved away to college in Bristol and he’s been lucky enough to get a scholarship in America, where he is also studying at the same time and will get a degree.
‘It is a completely different standard. Although he was a freshman last year he was still playing every game, rare for someone so young. His life really has been changed by playing football.’
AT A GLANCE
Name: Portsmouth Dreadnoughts
Where they play: Havant Rugby Club
When is the season: April-August
League: Southern Football Conference 2