Thunderbolts are go: American football at Trinity


As if three forms of football weren’t enough, it seems that all those American tourists and exchange students have rubbed off on us. Dublin University American Football Club (DUAFC), set up in 2007, is all set to bring the good news of gridiron to College Park – or at least, Santry.

As if three forms of football weren’t enough, it seems that all those American tourists and exchange students have rubbed off on us. Dublin University American Football Club (DUAFC), set up in 2007, is all set to bring the good news of gridiron to College Park – or at least, Santry. Like other cultural imports such as Texas Hold ‘Em poker, George Foreman grills and most of our TV, American football has a decent following here in Ireland, even if it doesn’t look likely to rival soccer, rugby or Gaelic games any time soon. The Trinity College Thunderbolts have been unobtrusively playing an eight-a-side format since last year, and are due to begin playing the full version of the game this season.

Interest in American football here began during the 1980’s, when NFL and college football games began to be broadcast on Irish television. The Irish American Football League has been in existence since 1986. Last year nine teams competed in the league, which culminates in the Shamrock Bowl (sure, what else would you call it?), held every August. A further six, including the Thunderbolts, contested the DV 8’s Development League, designed to ease new clubs and players into the game.

It would be surprising, then, if nobody at Trinity had made the attempt to set up a team before now, and indeed DUAFC isn’t a new idea. There was a previous attempt made during the 1990’s to set up a Trinity team, also known as the Thunderbolts, which withered away due to lack of interest. The name remains the same, says club captain Conor O’Shea, but a lot else has changed over the past ten years or so.

“There was no money for it back then, and no support from the league.” This time around, the team has secured financial support from both the IAFL, now well established and far better organised, and the Irish Sports Council, as well agreeing a sponsorship deal with Q-Bar. Financial resources are all-important in the gridiron game – all that armour doesn’t come cheap, and O’Shea admits that when it comes to new recruits, “the only real issue is kitting players up”.

There does appear to be enough interest out there amongst those prepared to make the investment in equipment to sustain a new team. Four Dublin-based sides already compete in the IAFL, including the delightfully named Tallaght Outlaws. Trinity is not even the first university to enter the league – the DCU Saints and UL Vikings are already competitive, and the Belfield rabble are taking steps toward setting up a team as well.

O’Shea feels that the Thunderbolts have picked up on a previously unfulfilled demand for an American football team on campus, particularly from overseas students. However, there continues to be “plenty of interest” from Irish people eager to try it out, with about two-thirds of the current roster being natives.

The Development League may have provided the team with some much-needed experience, but given that the Thunderbolts won only one out of their six games, and finished second from bottom, the learning curve in their first season in the full IAFL league may prove too steep.

The Dublin Rebels, one of Ireland’s top club sides, have won five out of eight Shamrock Bowls since 2000. TCD science student Sam Hodgins was at running back during the latest two of those victorious campaigns, scoring touchdowns in both finals. He says that the step up from the 8-a-side format will be a big challenge for the Thunderbolts, and expects them to struggle in their first couple of seasons. They have the potential though, to “upset a few people” and surprise some of the established teams.

O’Shea agrees, arguing that the team showed consistent improvement over the course of 2008, and the results appear to bear this out. Players are expected to follow a pretty rigorous gym programme, with protein supplements actively encouraged, so the Thunderbolts may have no problem with the big collisions by the time the 2009 season begins next March. The “abundant supply” of American and Canadian exchange students, with experience of high school football under their belts, should provide the team with a relatively seasoned backbone. O’Shea aims to get up to 60 people on the roster during the Freshers’ Week recruiting drive, doubling the 2008 crop of 30 (a figure not borne out, incidentally, by the club’s website, which lists about 20 current players).

Unlike the major sports, American football teams here cannot draw on domestic players with previous experience of the game, and must rely on imports and converts. Foreigners aside, the club’s natural hunting ground will probably be amongst rugby players, who share the build and set of skills needed in American football. Even the kicking is familiar, as witnessed by the semi-plausible rumours circulating a few years ago that Munster’s Ronan O’Gara was heading for a lucrative spell in the NFL. Many of the top players in the IAFL were also at one stage rugby players. O’Shea himself is from a rugby background, and reckons there are plenty more out there willing to make the switch from Gilbert to the pigskin. DUFC won’t exactly be seeing the Thunderbolts as competition just yet, but it would be a shame if the new club were to eat into the already small pool of talent available to its coaches. New recruits may not, however, be particularly enamoured of all those training and tactical sessions with no league games to come for five or six months. O’Shea claims that there will be plenty of friendly matches arranged in the meantime, including some against touring US colleges, and wants to travel to face some other European sides in the Netherlands or UK. Whether this ambitious goal is realised remains to be seen, but the commitment and energy appear to be there; now all the team needs is some new players.

While the Thunderbolts will face an uphill struggle to make an impact on the league this time around, true enthusiasts will not be put off by a challenge. Anyone wishing to throw their lot in with the helmet-and-cup brigade can do so from this Sunday, when DUAFC hold their first training session.