Hidden away on a small patch of grass out in Santry, a determined group of students forego a Saturday morning lie-in to indulge themselves in a sport many in Ireland do not even know is played here. Getting padded up and hitting hard puts Trinity College Dublin American Football Club along with the University of Limerick (UL) and University College Dublin (UCD) as the only universities in the country that play “America’s game”.
Some are drawn to it from exposure on late Sunday TV whilst others come from different sports, enticed by the opportunity to play a sport that mixes extreme physicality with finesse and tactical thought.
American football is enjoying a period of massive growth in Europe. With sold-out games at Wembley Stadium every year, fans across the continent are drawn to a sport whose flagship enterprise, the National Football League (NFL), mixes glitz and glamour with explosive action and feats of incredible athletic skill. Famous American football players such as Tom Brady, Odell Beckham Jr and Richard Sherman enjoy global fame and acclamation, where once their name would’ve only been known in North America, and continue to impact the growth in interest and popularity of the sport.
Ireland is no exception, with the numbers playing the sport continuing to grow, as The University Times found out when sitting down with the Trinity College Dublin American Football Captain, Conor O’Dwyer, to talk about the club and their aims for the season.
Drawing on student’s curiosity with the sport is the first step towards getting people involved. O’Dwyer explains how the annual fresher’s fair is a crucial part of the club’s recruiting process. A lot of people who signed up, he says, “didn’t even know there was a team” before seeing the stand in Freshers’ Week. Each year a few Americans take up the opportunity to play their native game in Ireland, whilst others choose to take up an entirely new pastime.
Although admitting that initial enthusiasm often subsides, once the reality of Saturday morning trips to Santry and buying kit hits home, he remains extremely positive about the quality of players that have been attracted to the team this year. “The new blood we have in the team is really looking promising, and has added to all parts of the team.” Due to the similarities in skills necessary, it comes as no surprise that often rugby players make the transition to the American counterpart, but O’Dwyer is keen to point out that players come from a variety of sporting backgrounds. “A lot of people from other sports like GAA come just because the skills like catching and fitness are transferrable.”
The team train twice a week, both on Saturday morning in Santry and a hall session in the sports centre on a Wednesday. The difference being that, as O’Dwyer explains, on the Wednesday players can work on “footwork and hands drills, skills that they would get less of an opportunity to work at on Saturday”. On the weekend, players pad up for physical contact while also getting used to gameplans and skills such as tackling that cannot be practiced indoors. At the moment, the club is averaging between 20 and 30 for its Saturday trainings, with O’Dwyer keen to ensure that as many as possible keep going late into the season. As the league is played over the summer months, the team have to contend with players leaving for the summer and the impact this has on both their game plan and the depth of quality in the side.
“Some of our players have gone on Erasmus so we will get them back for the summer. However, it’s annoying having to make the transition from players that you have at the start of the season and those that you have at the end – but we are well used to it at this stage”, explains O’Dwyer.
The team play in the Irish American Football League, or IAFL, the highly competitive American football competition in Ireland made up of clubs from all around the country. Last year, O’Dwyer admits the team struggled to reach the heights of the 2014 and 2015 season, when the club reached the Shamrock Bowl, the league final usually played at Tallaght Stadium. “We didn’t have a great year last year, losing a lot of key players from the team that made it really successful. So it was a real transition year.”
Despite losing out in the wildcard round of the playoffs last year, O’Dwyer is confident the team can reach the heights previous sides have set. “The aim every year is to get back to the Shamrock Bowl, and with the players we have we definitely have the talent to get there.” One of the new recruits hoping to improve the club’s chances of going far this season is in the coaching department, with American coach Peter Griffin working with the team from now until Christmas.
“He’s really trying to help the more senior players on the team, hoping to improve their skills so that they can pass them on to the rest of the team.” These insights extend to the tactical aspect of the game with Griffin helping to produce better offensive and defensive gameplans as well as introducing more productive training techniques to make the team more successful.
Something the club has tried to put particular emphasis on improving this year is the social aspect of the club. The club’s Super Bowl party is always very well attended, but O’Dwyer is keen to extend the social aspect beyond this one-off event.
“We get a lot of members who join who are interested in the club and watching the team but who don’t want to play, so we’re trying to organize a few events throughout the year for them to keep their interest up as well.”
For those who are interested in playing but have not yet gotten involved, O’Dwyer is keen to express that the opportunity is still there to play, with the team always welcome to new people getting involved. From speaking with O’Dwyer, the sense of community and togetherness on show in the club will prove a crucial part in any successes to come this season.