2023 Champions League Review
As the sun slowly yet steadily rose on Saturday April 1st 2023, Parc Du Tremblay revealed an aura that was truly representative of what was to lie ahead for the day. With much concern and speculation surrounding the weather in the weeks leading up to the tournament, it was a sigh of relief for those arriving at the ground to be greeted with only light cloudage. 24 teams soon embarked upon the new stage for the 2023 Champions League. Now in its seventh edition, the excitement and belief amongst every side was evident.
Reigning champions Cork Vikings were eager to make it known to the rest of the competition they were back for more after last year’s dominance, and that’s exactly what they did. Across their four games, they scored 203 points whilst only conceding 19. A clinical display which put them into a convincing position heading into finals. Coming into the tournament, Cardiff Panthers were eager to impress in their first ever entry into the Champions League and did so accordingly, finishing second across the women’s division remaining undefeated during the pool games. After ending their Champions League campaign in 4th last year, Edinburgh Bloods were looking to improve off that effort, and with only one loss in the group stages – to the relentless Vikings – a Grand Final birth wasn’t out of the question. The remaining spot in the finals would come down to the very last group game, between Norrtälje Dockers and Oileán Hounds. A victory for the Dockers would lift them above the West London Wildcats, who found themselves in an uncertain position having lost two of their games by a mere two points and five points respectively. Thankfully for the Wildcats, the Hounds got the better of the Dockers by a 24-point margin, and with that, the two semi-finals were set for the women’s competition.
The first of the semi-finals between the Vikings and Wildcats was a tale of two halves. The Wildcats managed to stay within seven points at the break, however it was all Cork from this point onwards. A five goal to none second half ensured Cork a spot in the Grand Final for a second year running. The second women’s semi-final between the Bloods and Panthers was a high-scoring affair, and it was the fast-starting Edinburgh who managed to come away with the win. Up 26-6 at half-time, you wouldn’t have been blamed for thinking the Bloods would run away with it. Yet, the Panthers weren’t going to falter in their efforts for a Grand Final booking. Cardiff managed to cut the lead to six points late in the second half, but it wasn’t enough and it would be Cork Vikings against Edinburgh Bloods in the one that mattered most.
Entirely focussed on a second consecutive Champions League, the Vikings came out and blasted their opponents out of the water. Heading into half time with a lead of 43, it was all but over. The Vikings were led all day by their triple threat contingent; Marie Keating, Maria Quirke and Annie Walsh, with Keating and Quirke both finding themselves in the team of the tournament. The bloods wouldn’t go down wondering however, managing to win the second half 18 points to 13, with the final score sitting at 62-24. The score doesn’t truly reflect the competitive nature of the game, but a dominant Cork outfit all day were deserving winners. A second piece of Champions League silverware will now be sitting in their cabinet, with hopes of a third in 2024.
Pool A was dominated by hosts Paris Cockatoos; an outfit ready to impress the locals watching on. Affectionately known as ‘the cocks’, they were undefeated throughout their four pool games, setting themselves up for a strong finals campaign. Mid Ulster Scorpions were the next best, with three wins on the board. This was unfortunately not enough to secure the ‘best of the rest’ spot in the semi-finals but will give them great confidence for future campaigns that they can compete with Europe’s best.
Pool B was noted by several clubs as the toughest across the three pools, and this was reflective in the ladder positions. Belfast Redbacks were the most dominant side, only conceding 29 points for the day and holding a 100%-win record. The West London Wildcats were left an anxious wait, similar to the women’s side, after their loss to the Redbacks in their last pool game had their finals spot in jeopardy. As the remaining scores from across the five pitches came through, elation was felt through the camp knowing a final’s position had been locked in. A special mention has to be given to the Vienna Galahs, who faced some serious difficulties along their Champions League journey. Key players including their captain were unable to make the journey, and then upon their arrival in Paris, their luggage was nowhere to be seen! Nicknamed ‘the pink’, they battled away all day, with their off-field presence felt positively amongst all.
Pool C also had a tight battle for the top. With Berlin Crocs finding their draw with Sesvete Double Blues critical in the race to book a finals spot. With a strong defensive line strangling opponents attempts at goal, and team of the tournament member Mark Shallue stamping his authority, the Crocs managed to better their 2022 performance and find themselves in a semi-final against the Redbacks.
With all pool matches played, the semi-finals structure was confirmed, the Cocks playing the Wildcats, and the Crocs facing Belfast Redbacks.
The Men’s finals competition brought a whole new meaning to unpredictable. On pitch one, the Redbacks and Crocs went to battle. After a slow start for both sides, with fatigue playing a factor, Redbacks slowly took control of play. The crocs wouldn’t let them out of their sight though and were desperate for one more goal to put themselves in front and secure a grand final position. After a few critical opportunities went begging, the Redbacks held on by a slim five points, and could now turn their focus to the grand-final.
In a match that sent shock and disappointment across the city of Paris, the Wildcats managed to run away 41-17 victors over the Paris Cockatoos. A tired Cocks outfit, who were coming to the end of their season, enabled West London to dominate possession and ultimately the match. A grand final spot was locked in and having spoken to coach Paul ‘Blighty’ Blight, the side were confident of turning the tables on the Redbacks, who had outclassed them hours prior.
It all came down to one final game. After the first games kicked off at 9am, seven and a half hours prior, players were sore, coaches voices were hoarse, but the fans were starving for more. There was plenty of feel in the game, with spot fires breaking out across the ground for the entirety. The clubs took turns in sharing the lead, and it was a matter of who would blink first. The Redbacks, with star Caoimhin Quinn shining all day, managed to secure a one goal lead heading into the break. Scores remained 20-14 in Redbacks favour for the first chunk of the second half, before Wildcats broke the deadlock and the scores were level. Unable to convert their opportunities, the Wildcats couldn’t stop Belfast from peeling away. Successive goals for the Redbacks put them 12 points ahead, and time was ticking fast. With less than a minute to go, the Redbacks put the icing on the cake in what was a dominant day for them, breaking the hearts of the Wildcats players and staff.
2023 Golden Whistle: Matt Mitchell
All at AFL Europe would like to thank those that helped the tournament run so smoothly. Hosting the most prestigious tournament on the calendar in a new city is no mean feat, and we extend our thanks in particular to AFL France, the Paris Cockatoos and those at Parc du Tremblay for their incredible assistance. A massive congratulations must also go to the players and coaches who earned the privilege of playing in the 2023 Champions League, as well as those involved at Cork Vikings and Belfast Redbacks, the two victorious clubs from the women’s and men’s tournament respectively.
Without field and goal umpires, pitch managers as well as our amazing broadcast team from Croatia, this event cannot go ahead, and we are grateful for all their involvement. Congratulations to the golden whistle winner Matt Mitchell, who umpired incredibly well throughout the entirety of the day – a deserving winner. We would also like to acknowledge the presence of Megan Anderson, Australian Ambassador to UNESCO and Deputy Head of Mission, who came down to watch and present the awards after the matches had been played.
Again, to all those involved, thank you. Good luck to the teams whose seasons are just beginning, as well as those already in-season. To the sides of which the Champions League marked the conclusion to their 2022/23 playing season, we hope you can now rest up over the off-season!
- Sam Briggs, AFL Europe