The UNSW Raiders Gridiron Club is the oldest in Australia. It was started in 1979 by self-confessed “gridiron fanatic” Stephen Jones, who was determined to create a club, even though there weren’t any competitions to play in as yet. By convincing his colleagues and friends to join, he pieced together a team, originally known as the Waverley Raiders. They held pick up games and cobbled together opposition teams for matches whenever they could gather enough players. 

The uniforms and protective gear usually worn in gridiron wasn’t available in Australia at the time and so the players made their own from tracksuit pants and foam pads from old couches. Eventually the hard work paid off in 1984, the Australian American Football Conference was formed, with seven teams taking part.

Of those seven, only two have survived through to today (although many others have been formed since then) the UNSW Raiders and the Sydney Uni Lions. Each year the two teams compete for the Foundation Shovel, which is currently held by UNSW – defeating their archrivals to take the shovel in 2019 for the first time in eight years.

The UNSW Raiders celebrate after winning the Foundation Shovel for the first time in eight years
The UNSW Raiders celebrate after winning the Foundation Shovel for the first time in eight years.

2019 is proving to be a great year for the club. The men’s team sit at the top of the ladder with only one loss from eight rounds. The women’s team is in third place and have gone from strength to strength over the season. With two rounds remaining in the season, it’s shaping up to be a very exciting finish.

Raiders president Darryl Jones, brother of founder Stephen, is delighted with the club’s progress this season.

“The energy surrounding the club has been incredible,” he said. “The men’s team continued their form from last year, while the women’s and colts teams have a lot of new faces this season and so have been building their combinations. The results are starting to show on the field. The positive attitude of all three teams is feeding a fantastic culture and energy within the group.”

Off the field the club is flourishing too. Jones believes it all comes down to a strong, positive culture that they have nurtured from the top down. Culture remains their main off-field focus, which helps them attract and retain players.

UNSW Raiders women's team
The women's team is currently in third place with two rounds remaining.

As for where those players come from when gridiron is not a sport traditionally played in Australian schools, he says there are many avenues to the sport.

“The physical skills from all other sports convert well to American football,” said Jones. “Running, catching even some of the field awareness skills like running zone coverage defences are easily transferrable. 

“We schedule some classroom training sessions throughout the season where we watch game film and discuss the intricacies of particular plays. We film all our opponents and expect all players to be watching game film as a part of their preparation for games and personal development.”

The club also runs a program to bring international players to the club. These more experienced players lend their skills, talent and knowledge to the Raiders, help coach the teams and get to experience life in Australia. The Raiders fundraise and secure sponsors to cover airfares, help organise visas, supply accommodation and help find part-time employment for the players in Sydney. 

Jones has been very happy with the growth of the program, which this year features four player/coaches from the United States and one from England.

“Their experience of having played under incredible, professional coaches in their home countries have provided them a wealth of knowledge that is difficult to obtain from a box or website,” he said. “Their attitude towards preparing for and playing in games gets passed on and has benefitted all three teams this year. 

“We also enjoy meeting new guys every year and introducing them to our city and to our culture. The connections we retain when they return home are bearing fruit for us in a number of ways.”

Men's head coach Andrew Brundu addresses the team.
Men's head coach Andrew Brundu addresses the team.

With the race for the championship soon coming to a close for 2019, it appears the Raiders will be well in the hunt. But what makes the Raiders special can’t be measured in trophies or prizes.

“On a personal level I have enjoyed the lifelong friendships I have made through my association with the club and really enjoy the new generations forging the same bonds,” said Jones.