When the RFU dreamed up the new Schools Champions Trophy, games like Millfield v Tonbridge were probably exactly what they were picturing.
The aim of the Champions Trophy was to bring some of the biggest rugby schools in the country together in a competitive knockout format, and in Millfield and Tonbridge we had two of they very biggest, as for competitive, that would be an understatement. Without question it was the most intense game of school rugby that this writer has seen in the 2014/15 season.
The occasion was already a special one given that these two sides are not normally on each otherâ€™s radars until 7s season, and Tonbridge had made a three and a half hour coach journey to be there, but that atmosphere was heightened by news that the RFU would be live streaming the event, bringing in viewers from far away destinations, including Istanbul and Bermuda among others. For a game of schools rugby, that was astonishing.
With the game kicking off at 16.45 the atmosphere was fizzing by Millfieldâ€™s Jubilee pitch (or the Gareth Edwards to give it its official title), with the viewing gallery belting out a few classics having come straight from the classrooms to the game.
Perhaps the home players were still glazed over from their own classroom exploits too though as despite a raucous welcome it was the away side, Tonbridge, who started the brightest powering into Millfield territory within the first couple of minutes.
Millfield temporarily lost Saracens U18 hooker Aston Lester, who had broken his finger, but it was to prove crucial with Tonbridge nabbing a Millfield lineout on their own five metre line and launching a series of drives at the Millfield line.
Tonbridge have some impressive power runners, not least of which is England U16 captain Ben Earl, and they used their runners well before hooker Theo Buffini burrowed over form five metres out, finished well with an outstretched arm.
Mike Scottâ€™s conversion gave the visitors a 7-0 lead with just six minutes played, and it did exactly what Tonbridge would have hoped, it just quietened the crowd. Millfield had not yet had the ball though and once the had it under their control they began to show why they have been scoring so many points this season, 138 in three games, as they started running at the opposition defence.
Bath U18 full back Darren Atkins was a real threat, he had stepped into the fly half shirt with Adam Hastings moving to inside centre, and he looked the most likely to produce some magic. Tonbridgeâ€™s fast line speed and aggressive defence were affording him little time or space though, a contrast to what he would be used to at full back.
Millfield had begun to dominate possession, and is their way they were opting to run everything, believing in themselves to score tries rather than kick points. It is an admirable tactic, and great for the development of players, but against this Tonbridge defence it was costing them valuable points.
They were soon made to pay as Tonbridge found some possession of their own and immediately scored â€“ it was clinical stuff, two visits to the opposition 22, and two tries.
It all came from a driving maul from the lineout, an aspect of Tonbridgeâ€™s play that was to be a threat all day, and having driven the ball fifteen metres on Tonbridge pulled it back out wide for Ben Earl who came in on a fantastic angle between his centres.
From that kind of range there is simply no stopping a man like Earl and he charged through to double the Tonbridge lead, making it 14-0 with the Scott conversion, and stunning the home crowd. Millfield were in a game, and for the first time all season.
Tonbridgeâ€™s tails were up and you could see it in their work at the breakdown, bodies were hurling in, while in attack their big runners were making life tough for Millfield. That said, the home side still had the lions share of possession and were creating opportunities, the final pass just was not quite there when they needed it.
Atkins was still buzzing and looking threatening, while Hastings was doing his utmost to unlock the defence, along with his partner Carling in midfield (whoever imagined that?!), with captain Ransom, his back row colleague Bayliss, and the returning Lester all beginning to grow more too.
It was great rugby from both sides, intense and skilful all around. Millfield turned down a couple of kicking opportunities and went to the corner but Tonbridgeâ€™s defence just would not yield, â€˜itâ€™s going to take something specialâ€™ seemed to be their message.
As the half drew to a close, Millfield were awarded another penalty. This one they opted to kick, knowing that the whistle would go as soon as it was over, Atkins landed it simply enough to send the sides in with the scores at Millfield 3-14 Tonbridge.
Tonbridge had done exactly what they would have set out to, silenced the crowd and put themselves in a strong position. Millfield had had the lions share of the ball but were frustrated by their inability to get behind Tonbridgeâ€™s excellent defence in the danger zone. All along the touchlines though the talk was of just how good a game this was. During the break Millfield coach John Mallet could be seen telling his players that they were in a game here, to relish and enjoy it. He looked like he would give an arm to be out there himself.
He changed thing up though, Atkins was moved from fly half to full back, giving him the time and space to work his magic, with Hastings moved to fly half and clearly with instruction to play the game when it is on or in the opposition half, as opposed to the usual tactic of trying to figure out a way to create space almost from anywhere.
Atkins immediately created a spark, sending in a booming kick before chasing it down and driving the Tonbridge defender into touch. It was a statement of intent as much as a quality piece of play, signalling Millfieldâ€™s determination to see this game tip their way.
From the resulting period of play Tonbridge coughed up a penalty in their own 22. This time there was no debate, Atkins was going for the posts. The decision paid off as he landed it with ease, narrowing the deficit to eight points at 14-6.
Belief was clearly growing in the Millfield ranks and with the supporters too as their volume began to ratchet back up. A tide was coming you felt, but Tonbridge had a defence that looked like it was prepared to stand up to anything, and they had more than a few tricks up their sleeve going the other way too as they began trying to make inroads into the Millfield half, with that lineout drive still a real threat too.
The breakdown was becoming a real scrap, with ball being turned over back and forth. And then it happened.
From one such breakdown Millfield ripped the ball away and shifted it deep towards Atkins who picked it off his boot laces on his own 22.
Looking up he saw two Tonbridge defenders but with a wiggle of the hips they were left for dust. Up to full speed now he was past halfway, and the retreating wingers and full back simply never stood a chance of catching him as he raced away under the posts. It was an unbelievable try, fully 80 metres of gliding running. He had been the standout player in the first half but could never quite make the break, but here it was, and what a moment.
He converted his own try and suddenly the score was 13-14 with the crowd absolutely jumping now. Momentum had well and truly shifted.
Millfield came back again in waves and Tonbridge were working hard to keep them out, but were occasionally falling foul of the referee for coming off the line too early. It was to cost them dear, eventually he lost patience and produced a yellow card, a team offence but it robbed Tonbridge of a player and it gave Millfield a penalty chance.
With Atkins in the form that he was, there was never any doubt, he hoofed it over with metres to spare and having been 14-0 down his side now led 16-14. The shift in momentum had been incredible.
No sooner did they have the lead though than panic set about the Millfield camp â€“ Atkins went down with cramp and had to come off. For Tonbridge that must have seemed like a chink of light, they knew they just had to wrestle back some momentum and they would win this game.
Step up Adam Hastings. Hastings had been trying to force some magic all game, but with his side up and with their fleet of foot vice captain now off, Hastings just slipped back into the pocket and pinned Tonbridge back â€“ it was textbook play.
It did the job too. Millfield saw out the remaining ten minutes well, forcing Tonbridge to kick to them before just pinging it back into their 22 and making them try all over again.
At the final whistle the crowds went wild, but on the pitch there was no screaming and shouting, just exhaustion. The Tonbridge players collapsed, exhausted and distraught, the Millfield players exchanged a few hugs but to a man went and found their opposite numbers. Both sides knew they had been in a proper game of rugby here in Somerset, and both knew how close it had been.
Parents and coaches often say in defeat that a team should be proud of themselves. Sometimes it is just to comfort them. Not with this game, this was a game for both sides to be proud of, an exceptional game of rugby between exceptional teams.
What a game, what an occasion. Few will fancy meeting Millfield next round.
Full Time: Millfield 16-14 Tonbridge
You can see a replay of the game via this link: Video – Millfield v Tonbridge.
Elsewhere, Epsom College defeated Blundellâ€™s 40-7, while Grammar School at Leeds made the long trip down to Bedford and came away with an excellent 13-10 victory. The suspicion is that between those two sides and Millfield the winner might well be lurking.
15 Harry CloseÂ 14 Hadleigh TuckerÂ 13 Henry Carling ParkinsonÂ 12 Adam HastingsÂ 11 Oliver BuckÂ 10 Darren AtkinsÂ 9 Cameron Brown;Â 1 Nick IsbisterÂ 2 Aston LesterÂ 3 Henry PeckÂ 4 Benjamin DickinsonÂ 5 Rory MitchellÂ 6 Josh BaylissÂ 7 Xander ReidÂ 8. Bailey Ransom.
Replacements: 16 Oliver Dawe-LaneÂ 17 Josh BartonÂ 18 Alex TiarksÂ 19 Cian KennedyÂ 20 Harry Vigar.
15 Elliot WebbÂ 14 David BallingallÂ 13 Jonny HampsonÂ 12 Harry leekÂ 11 Felix SarowiwaÂ 10 Bart ForsterÂ 9 Mike Scott;Â 1 Will BellÂ 2 Theo BuffiniÂ 3 Fred JohnsonÂ 4 Rupert LovelandÂ 5 Jo FroudÂ 6 Alex DaintonÂ 7 Rory McMeikanÂ 8 Ben Earl.
Replacements: Joe TurnerÂ 17 Harry TylerÂ 18 James GibsonÂ 19 George SalterÂ 20 Angus Horne.
Who do you think will win the Schools Champions Trophy? Let us know via the comment box below or via @FifteenRugbyXV
By Angus Savage