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Phoenix master Hawks to go clear at the top of Prem North

On a hot Sunday afternoon last weekend, the Tamworth Phoenix came to town in a mouth watering top of the table clash that would have huge play off implications. A win for either side would have put them in a good position to host play off football in the post season, and ultimately it was the Phoenix who would leave JMO with smiles on their faces.

The Nighthawks took the ball from the off and started to build some pressure before the Tamworth defence had chance to tighten up. A series of short runs and scrambles from QB Ben Robinson set the Hawks up in Phoenix territory. However, the Phoenix started to turn the screw and forced the Nighthawks to punt the ball away. Tamworth had a good return, but would see a quick 3 and out of their own to give the home team the ball again.

Deep in their own territory after a good punt from the Phoenix kicker, we saw the first turnover the day as Robinson tried to find WR Holebrook in double coverage. Tamworth returned the ball deep into the Nighthawks 5 yard line, but a personal foul penalty set them up on the Hawks 20. Despite the good field position, the Phoenix would have to settle for a Field Goal as the Nighthawks defence showed their mettle. 3-0 to Tamworth.

The Hawks got the ball back, but couldn’t do much with it, with the Phoenix constantly pressurising Robinson and hitting a big sack on 3rd down. Matt O’Connell managed to punt the ball out to about half way and despite another good return, the Phoenix were backed up by another penalty on the return. The Hawks defence once again tightened, forcing the Phoenix to attempt a Field Goal from 43 yards out. Despite the ball clearly sailing wide of the goal post, the back judge gave the kick as good, and Tamworth were out to a 6 point lead.

Tamworth then came out with a surprise onside kick attempt, which was quickly snuffed out by WR Holebrook and the Hawks had good field position at about halfway. Despite this, once again Tamworth stuffed all attempts to get the ball moving and forced the Hawks into a punting situation. HC Pennington dialled up a fake of his own, electing to attempt to convert the good field position using a hand off instead of a punt, which failed when the Phoenix defence got to the ball quickly, stopping the runner a few yards from the first down marker. Phoenix ball, with a 6-0 lead.

The two teams would then trade 3 and outs twice, as both defences showed why they were amongst the best in the country, with big stops by both teams.

The next set of Nighthawks downs changed the game. After a short run up the middle on a QB keeper, Ben Robinson stayed down injured, after rolling his ankle. With usual QB Routledge unavailable, this led to WR Alex Eager stepping in and assuming QB responsibilities for the rest of the game. A 4th down run from the halfway line was stuffed again and Tamworth took over.

Despite being able to move the ball efficiently, the Phoenix found themselves in a 4th and 44 yards to go after two unsportsmanlike penalties by an offensive lineman (which resulted in his ejection from the game). Tamworth punted back to the Nighthawks, and deep in their own territory, Eager handed the ball off to RB Laurent Tshimanga. LT had made some good yardage, and likely a first down, when the ball was knocked from his hands before he was ruled down. The Phoenix had the ball deep in the Nighthawks red zone, and were looking to capitalise quickly.

Facing 3rd and 3 after a scrappy passage of play from both teams, Tamworth extended their lead through the ever dangerous RB Elliot Walters, who found a crease in the Hawks defence to take it in for 6. The Phoenix added on the XP, and were out to a 13-0 lead before half time.

Things would get worse for the Hawks on the next drive, as Eager threw an INT on the first offensive play from scrimmage following Tamworth’s score. Rolling out left to try and put the Phoenix on the back foot, Eager attempted to throw across his body to WR Houghton, who had two men in front of him and open space behind him. The pass, however, was a tad short, and was caught by a Tamworth defender as he fell to the ground. Phoenix ball in the Nighthawks 25, up 13-0.

Tamworth looked hungry to add to the points tally quickly and set about pressurising the Hawks defence immediately. A good run up the left sideline by RB Walters, set the Phoenix up in the Hawks red zone. However, the Nighthawks defence stiffened, stuffing Tamworth on 3 consecutive plays, bringing out the Phoenix kicker. The field goal was good, and Tamworth led 16-0 just before half time.

The Hawks were made to kick the ball back to Tamworth to start the second half, and a reinvigorated Hawks looked a different team. The defence quickly shut the Phoenix down giving the ball back to the home team. Eager then got to work, moving the ball efficiently through a variety of QB keepers and RB hand offs until the Hawks were just inside Tamworth territory. Facing 4th and 3, Pennington left his offence on the field as he looked to continue the momentum they had just gained from a promising drive. The run was stopped half a yard short, and Tamworth took over.

They once again found it difficult to move the ball, and punted back to the Hawks, with a few penalties thrown in for good measure. Starting on their own 20 yard line after a touchback from the punt, Eager took control of the offence and started to look natural in the position, moving the ball into Tamworth territory. Facing 3rd and 2 from the 35 yard line, Eager handed off to RB Tshimanga, who cut quickly to the outside, before racing down the Hawks sideline and into the end zone. The Hawks attempted to go for 2, and after their first try was negated by a delay of game penalty, the second was stuffed by the Phoenix defence a yard shy of paydirt. 16-6 to Tamworth and we had a game on our hands.

Not wanting to be in a close game with so much at stake, Tamworth came out quickly and added to their scoreline. After a 3rd down conversion around the Nighthawks 30, QB Angus Cook found an open receiver in the end zone, who brought the ball in for 6. The XP was good and the Phoenix were out to a 23-6 lead, with breathing space again.

After a roughing the kicker penalty gave Tamworth the kick off from halfway, they once again attempted an onside kick, which again was snuffed out by the Hawks returners. Despite some strong running from RBs Murphy and QB Eager, the Hawks were forced to punt again. Dialling up another fake, punter O’Connell attempted a pass to a wide open receiver, only for the ball to fall short. Despite good field position, Tamworth failed to take advantage as the QB threw an interception to Safety Jonny Weekes on the second play of the drive.

Eager then took the Hawks on a time sapping 12 play drive, using his own legs, misdirection and RBs Tshimanga and Murphy to put the Hawks within the Tamworth 5 yard line. Faced with 4th and goal from the 8 yard line, Eager found WR Dom Woo on a crossing route, but with Woo looking for blocks to the end zone, the Phoenix once again swarmed to the ball to snuff out any chance of a score. Into the 4th quarter now, and the Phoenix still led 23-6.

The Phoenix looked like they were set for the win, but turned the screw even more on the next Nighthawks possession, forcing the Hawks into a punt from their own end zone. Starting with the ball on the Hawks 40, Tamworth put together a strong drive, which saw them deep in the Nighthawks red zone. However, the ‘bend don’t break’ mentality that has seen the Hawks hold some good offences out, stuffed the QB on 4th and 1 from the 14 yard line to give the ball back to the Hawks offence.

Needing to score points quickly, Eager was given more free reign and looked to be putting together a good drive. However, on 4th and 2 from their own 30 yard line, Eager was sacked as the blocking in front of him missed the rushing linebacker, and #10 was tackled at the 25 yard line. Tamworth took full advantage of this, 3 plays later as QB Cook found his WR open across the middle again for 6. The XP was good, and Tamworth led 30-6, with time ticking down quickly.

The Hawks drove the ball to midfield before RB Murphy tried to lateral it to an offensive lineman, looking to get some points on the board quickly. This led to the ball being recovered by Tamworth, and two plays later, the officials brought an end to the game as time expired, with Tamworth showing why they have been the best team in the Prem North for the last 4 years.

There is a quick turnaround for the Hawks, as they face the Sheffield Giants next Sunday (28th July) as both teams need wins for different reasons. The Nighthawks know that nothing but a win will do if they want to go to the post season, whereas Sheffield need to win if they are to stay in the Prem North for another year. You can find out more about that game here :-
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