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Sedbergh withstand stunning Wellington comeback to win one of the great games

What makes a great game of rugby? Is it the quality of the play, the number of tries, the closeness of the game, the drama, the guts?

How about all of those factors in one game? That was what happened when Sedbergh and Wellington College met at Broadstreet RFC, a game that Sedbergh won 37-34, a game that was one of the great schoolboy matches.

It was a high quality affair throughout but a late hat-trick from Wellington College’s Harlequins full back, on the wing today, Sam Aspland-Robinson, just raised the bar even further and sent the drama into the stratosphere, only for the nerveless Sedbergh and England U18 full back, Johnny McPhillips, to secure the victory for his side with some goal kicking that another Jonny would have been proud of.

The first half was a tit for tat affair, with the Sedbergh scrum proving a huge weapon but not enough for them to put any real distance between them and Wellington on the scoreboard. McPhillips and Wellington captain Will Wilson had traded early penalties, before try from England U18 second row Alex Moon and a McPhillips conversion gave the famous Northern rugby school a 10-3 lead.

Wellington showed wonderful determination to bounce back though, a theme that was to run and run throughout the match, scoring a try soon after to leave the half time score at 10-8 and with everything to play for.

It had been a first half that was tense and intense in equal measure, but one that suggested that both sides had the quality to really start to open up. What was clear though was that tries were not just going to arrive as perhaps they have against some of the weaker opponents that each has faced, under the Broadstreet floodlights they were going to have to work hard to create their opportunities.

That feeling was to be proved correct almost instantly as Sebergh flew out of the traps, allowing fly half Alistair Crossdale to skillfully glide over for his side’s second, McPhillips converted. Naturally.

It gave them a nine point lead, making the next score crucial, it was therefore no surprise that Wellington were to be the side that took it. Their ability to galvanise after conceding was startling, as if with each point that went by only served to make them raise their game further. The only trouble for them was that Sedbergh were doing exactly the same.

It was a glorious score though, finished by England U18 centre Matt Williams but created by a he burst from inside his own half by captain Wilson before some further good work by yet another of that litany of England U18 Wellington College backs, Conor Dolan.

It was at this point that pitchside volume really began to crank up, supporters of both sides realised that after the high quality but tense first half, both sides were now right up at the fullest attacking power, ferocious in defence and at the breakdown, fluid and ruthless with the ball in hand.

Sedbergh responded fast to the Wellington try, with Moon scoring his second, before a yellow card left Sedbergh supporters fearing a tough ten minutes. Those concerns were eased by an astonishing McPhillips penalty though, giving his side a twelve point 27-15 lead, it was struck from near enough the halfway line, on the angle. Astonishing.

With little more than ten minutes on the clock it seemed like a tough ask for Wellington to come back, certainly the switch to taking tap penalties suggested that they thought so too, yet the roar the team collectively exuded with each big tackle, each penalty won, and each line break made, suggested that they still very much believed.

With a player like Aspland-Robinson in their ranks, it was easy to tell why. There is a reason why he has played A League rugby for Harlequins this season, and as the game entered its closing stages, we were about to see why.

The England U18 man glided over on the right hand side to close the gap to 22-27 with the aid of a Wilson conversion, prompting roars of appreciation from his teams and cries, rightly, that at this stage it was all about the top two inches. And of course they were right, the only problem was that both teams were as mentally robust as any other side out there.

Sedbergh hit back almost immediately through Crossdale again, with McPhillips restoring the twelve point advantage with his conversion. He and Crossdale had been playing excellently together, with McPhillips regularly stepping in at first receiver in much the same way that England envisaged a year or so ago when playing Alex Goode at full back. Perhaps Sedbergh should send in tonight’s tape for it was an excellent demonstration of how to play it – indeed in a few years perhaps these two will be doing it again in the white shirt, Crossdale is a part of the England U17 set up, with McPhillips in the 18s.

34-22 with the clock running down fast was surely too much, yet here came Wellington again, hammering away at the Sedbergh line. Such was the noise from the crowd and the obvious quality of the rugby that Coventry RFC pulled away from their training session to take in proceedings, with their head coach taking more than just a passing interest.

Indeed many of those on show might find themselves at a club like Coventry on dual registration next year, at least four of the current or past England U20s crops could be seen training with them, including Lewis Ludlum and Jordan Onojaife. They would have been impressed by what their younger colleagues were showing, especially with the rain now teaming down, both sides were handling impeccably.

It was that impeccable handling that allowed Aspland-Robinson to bag his second of the game. With Wellington rumbling on in the torrid weather, many would just keep the ball tight, but with the quality in their backline they knew they could spread it, and on came Aspland-Robinson on an absolute howitzer of a line to run in almost unopposed.

Suddenly a difficult 22-34 deficit was a more manageable 27-34 one, however the teams had traded tries all day long  and no sooner had Wellington scored than Sedbergh were mounting yet another charge of their own.

Sensing space out wide they tried to move the ball wide but Aspalnd-Robinson read it and pounced to intercept and run in from inside his own half.

Suddenly from 34-22 ahead, Sedbergh found themselves in a 34-34 tie and with the momentum against them. Many sides would have crumbled, many have and many will, but Sedbergh refused, they had given too much to this cause to crumble now. The game was at 34 apiece for a reason, both were exceptional sides playing exceptional rugby, to cave now would be anathema to either side.

So Sedbergh battled forwards, moving into Wellington territory with a few powerful surges and calm handling. In this weather patience is always likely to yield a penalty, and so it did but on the angle and between the ten and the halfway lines it seemed too far. It was surely nudging 50 metres, huge at any level.

McPhillips was the calmest man in Coventry though. With coaches trying to give instruction, supporters and players trying to give their opinion on whether to chance the kick or go for broke with the kick to touch, McPhillips simply raised a calm hand and called for the tee. The phrase ‘I’ve got this’ sprang to mind.

Have it he did, and as the touch judges flags raised and the crowd roared its approval, McPhillips has already trotting back into position. Another day at the office.

He had dragged it out well too, leaving less than a minute to play, but Wellington had shown all game that a minute was plenty of time for them to score. They retrieved possession and pounded away inside the Sedbergh 22. Sedbergh’s support gathered on their own line trying to create a sixth man for them as they tried to repel the Wellington attack. It seemed to help as their side brilliantly managed to force the error, bringing with it the end of the game.

The whistle sparked massive Sedbergh celebration, and huge Wellington disappointment. For those of us on the touchlines there was a mix of emotions, joy at having witnessed such a game, sorrow that it had to end at some point for it was truly that good – the drama was intoxicating.

What makes a great game of rugby? Two of the best teams in the country, if not the very best, scoring nine tries between them, in a game of rugby won by just three points, won by a dramatic last minute penalty after a comeback from a twelve point deficit from the losing side, with both sides giving everything and showing the sort of, heart, guts, and determination that turns all spectators into admirers.

This was a great game of rugby, by any standards. Perhaps the only shame was that one of them had to lose, yet had it ended a draw it would have missed something, the game deserved a full conclusion and in that McPhillips penalty it found one, and found the perfect man to fulfill it.

Full Time: Wellington College 34-37 Sedbergh

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