The Valkyries go again because who else will?

The Cardiff Valkyries will play the season’s final game on Saturday. How does the country’s only female American football team continue to compete at its level? 

Just a short bus ride from Cardiff City Centre, Wales’ only female adult tackle football team readies for their final game on Saturday.

It’s simple: Zoe John wants to smack someone in the face. 

“I’m ready!” shouts the Cardiff Valkyries team captain and linebacker. “Come on!”

It’s here the huddle of 15 women surrounding John presses in even tighter, as if on some sports paradigm cue. At the final practice of the 2019-2020 season, the adrenaline for a match six days away courses through the throng, flirting with fever pitch. 

You’d be forgiven in forgetting there’s no other place in the country like this: this slipshod huddle of females streaked in mud and grass shouting that yes, Wales’ only all-female American football team wants to — and will — smack someone in the face. 

So as 17 hands meet in the huddle’s centre, move up and down twice in textbook unanimity, and on three, shout again, it’s impossible to deny the echoes certifying to whomever can hear them that yes, the Valkyries will do just this.

Zoe John has helped lead the team huddle since 2016, playing first on both a female university team as well as a men’s team when no female team was available.

On Saturday 29 February at 1.00 pm, the Cardiff Valkyries will play their final games of the UK’s 2020 Sapphire Series against the Cheshire Bears and Leicester Falcons. With a loss and a draw against the Falcons and a bottom ranking against the Bears, the Valkyries come hungry for comeback.

But Saturday’s round robin finale vaunts a little something extra: It’s only the second time in Valkyries history the club will host on Welsh turf.

“Which is a nice feeling,” says centre and defensive lineman Mandy Gould. “Because when you’re welcoming someone to their death, it’s always nice to be at home.”

“You send them away licking their wounds,” adds wide-receiver and quarterback Katherine Fretwell, matching Gould’s grin.

“We need to come out strong. We need to come out fast. Heads in the game, ready to go,” says Coach Browning.

Since 2016, the Cardiff Valkyries have been the UK’s only adult female 7-a-side tackle football team to wave a Welsh flag, which has its perks. It means, technically, the women can say they play for Wales.

If you’re Gould, it means making history by scoring the first female touchdown on Welsh soil two years ago. The closest competitor living three hours away means an all-star reservoir of bus songs and ceaseless opportunities to annoy teammates with your chicken satay. Not to mention the ever-so-often stop to take photos in children’s rides.

Yet, for four years, other options haven’t existed. Long bus rides for helmet-to-helmet time have been as habitual as putting the helmets on. 

“Basically there’s us, and there’s this big void of space where there’s no one,” Fretwell says.  

Confused? Watch our Three-Minute American Football Guide here:

The big void of space would, assumedly, make the Valkyries a beacon for Wales’ female athletes. But while the Valkyries have grown from 10 to 15 fresh faces in 2020, the team still finds themselves assumed to be a fancy dress hen-do when sporting their kits off pitch. Others brazenly ask if the ladies actually require such attire, which only triggers a now de facto response: 

“Yes, I do. Do you want me to show you,” recites Gould with a cool shrug. 

The issue isn’t so much females sporting kits largely associated with large men pummelling into each other.  Female rugby players in Wales increased from 170 to about 10,000 in three years. Other contact sports like roller derby are played regularly by girls at schools and clubs. 

“If you consider that, really we should be having three, four times as many players here,” says wide receiver and defensive corner Sara Pratt. “But there’s really no interest in American football.”

The Valkyries begin training in November for the Sapphire Series.

Free safety and running back Zoe Wilder recalls toting a football to her school playground, only to toss the ball to herself or a wall. John played on a men’s team for three years before the Valkyries. Playing American football requires seeking it, Wilder says, though most don’t know the sport exists.

“We’re lucky we even have a club. There’s not much opportunity to play when you have to rely on little clubs building,” Pratt says. 

The interest dearth makes things particularly difficult when pitted against English and Scottish rivals stacked with 20 to 40 players pumping fresh legs after each whistle. But John barely bats an eye upon admitting at a game last year that the Valkyries fronted a squad of seven altogether. In other words, after the offensive possession was over, there was no jogging off for a cool down. The seven-woman offence was now the seven-woman defence.

“Six at one point,” John says.

“We didn’t want to risk putting in the QB,” says Wilder.

The Sapphire Series, the UK’s 8v8 adult female tackle football National Championship league, hosts 19 teams ranging in all sizes.  

It’s what naturally comes with being the perennially smaller team.

“It’s really do all or die,” says John. 

John is more than literal. While other teams designate particular player roles, the 15 Valkyries learn every position, which isn’t so much over-zealous as it is risk management.

When the quarterback and centre are lost seven minutes into the first quarter, the wide receiver becomes quarterback, the offensive lineman the new centre and the playbook null and void, like an impromptu game of musical chairs. 

“Personally, I’d call it contact chess,” says Oldacre. 

“Chess with helmets,” adds Gould. 

Valkyries players must learn multiple positions, from running back (left) to defensive safety.

Like chess, more bodies don’t total success. As Pratt puts it, football isn’t girls getting dressed up and hitting with anger. Teams need leaner players to run and stronger bodies to block. But most importantly, they need strategy to turn that clashing rigmarole into fluid touchdowns, particularly when limited competition means opponents have witnessed exactly when a Valkyries pass play will suddenly become a right-side reverse more than three times in a season.

“Basically, whatever [the other teams] do, they can’t be right,” says Fretwell. “We have to continue to do stuff until they think they’re right, and then we’re going to make them wrong again.” 

That can feel like navigating a mental labyrinth, but being the small shrimp is a surprising perk. The spirit from a slapdash, post-practice huddle doesn’t evanesce once the huddle breaks. It grasps onto the few and urges them to aim for the mouths, despite being a few hands short — or not being a hand at all and still learning to be one anyway.

Strategy is the most important and often underestimated element of the game.

Which is why the Valkyries didn’t expect much from Gould when she subbed-in as centre for the first time in her life in the middle of a game, nor Pratt at defensive back. Instead, they expected them to try and go again.

“It’s our motto,” says Gould. “We go again.”

If it could be knitted on their kits, perhaps it would. Opposing coaches with double the numbers still warn players not to get comfortable despite what scorebooks read. The Valkyries aren’t known to get lazy. They’ll keep coming back to knock you down. 

“And we do knock some people down,” says Gould without hesitation. The other players nod in unison. 

“We’ve done the physical stuff. Mentally, we need to be ready for Saturday.”

Come Saturday, this is precisely the strategy to prove that knocking teams down on Welsh soil shouldn’t be as rare as it is. 

“We’re the only team in Wales and that’s special, but it’s something we’re trying to grow,” says John.

And if the Valkyries know anything, it’s a simple matter of getting out there and going again.

“For everyone out on that field,” says Fretwell. “If we don’t, who else will?”