A superb Darren Atkins brace helped Millfield to a 32-17 victory over Oakham to secure their place in the first ever Schools Champions Trophy final.
The Bath and England U18 full back has already lit up this tournament with some superb displays and an outstanding solo try against Tonbridge in the last 16, and he was in equally evasive form in this semi final.
It was a fixture that historians of school rugby would have loved, Oakham, twice Schools Cup champions in the early 2000s and one of the giants of the school game, against Millfield, one of the great production lines of talent in schools rugby history, and one of its most successful sides.
Having claimed the St Josephâ€™s Festival title for the second time in three years just before half term, Millfield were rightly favourites for this game, however Oakham came in having beaten one of Millfieldâ€™s big rivals for this Champions Trophy title, Epsom College. The away sideâ€™s quality and passion was not to be underestimated.
Watching the warm ups, it was clear that Oakham were fired up and ready to attack for another upset, with Millfieldâ€™s side shorn of so many regulars due to the import rule, there was a slight air of caution among the home support too, particularly with a new interim coaching team taking charge for just the second time. That said, when the likes of Danny Grewcock and Lee Mears are a part of that coaching team, such caution is all relative.
Oakham did come out firing though, after 20 minutes Millfield were 6-3 up after two Adam Hastings penalties to Matt Riddingtonâ€™s one, but if anything Oakham had had the greater try scoring chances at that stage.
The contest at the breakdown was fierce, with both sides making life miserable for the opposition scrum half, resulting in some scrappy play, during which Oakham picked up a yellow card for what looked like a deliberate knock on.
If there are two qualities that set the very best sides at any level apart from the rest, it is that they are clinical and they are ruthless. Millfield showed both of those qualities as they secured fourteen points in that sin-bin period, though two excellent scores, both crafted from the excellent boot of Hastings, who converted both. He exploited the extra space brilliantly, first through a cheeky grubber through, the second with a pin-point crossfield kick â€“ it was the sort of play that marks the man out as a top player.
That put his side 20-3 up and all of a sudden in total control. Oakham were not ready to give up though. The trip from Rutland to Somerset is not a short one and as their legion of fans at Millfieldâ€™s Gareth Edwardâ€™s pitch and following along on Twitter were keen to point out â€“ they had not come to roll over or lose.
How right they were, dogged they remained, captain Henry Boddy was getting stuck in with Millfield captain Bailey Ransom, doing his best to upset the home sideâ€™s mindset and flow. However no amount of gnarly breakdown work, guts, or determination can prevent sheer magic when it happens, and with Darren Atkins in the opposition ranks, magic is never far away.
The gliding full back picked up the ball inside his own half, feinted to pass left for the briefest of moments before dropping his shoulder and breezing between the onrushing defenders, surging deep into Oakham territory. As the cover approached, Jonny Mayâ€™s rounding of Israel Dagg last Saturday sprang to mind. Atkins, already in full flight, seemed to find an extra yard or two of pace to just glide around the outside to slide over in the corner. It was yet another outstanding try from the man who began his career at Millfieldâ€™s Prep School.
That try gave Millfield a 25-3 half time lead, and while Oakham were definitely in the game, it felt as though it was likely to be too big a margin to overcome.
As had been pointed out though, they had not travelled all of that way or beaten Epsom previously to simply come and roll over, and nor did they. Despite that ominous looking half time score Oakham won the second half 14-7, unfortunately for them it left them still fifteen points short of their hosts.
Part of the reason for that margin was a second piece of magic from Atkins. This time though he owed much to Hastings, whose delay on his pass allowed Atkins to hit the type of line that full backs and coaches dream of, and opposition defences have nightmares about.
Such was the quality of the pass and the line that Atkins had effectively beaten the first man as he collected the ball, before he jinked infield before fading left and then showing that brilliant extra acceleration again to round the covering defence and slide over in the corner. There were some pretty special performances from a pair of England full backs last night in Sam Aspland-Robinson and Johnny McPhillips, but Atkins was more than a match for them â€“ what a pleasure it is going to be to see this group of young English full backs develop over the next few years. It looks set to be a real area of strength.
Millfield were now building up some real momentum but had perhaps been guilty of giving away a few too many penalties, a point that came home to roost as Hastings saw yellow.
Oakham seized the opportunity to even up the scoreboard a touch, first scoring though Moses Gunda after some excellent phase play sent the big man over, before the away side finished the game with another well worked score to give the scoreboard an altogether for respectable looking 32-17 final score, rather than the 32-3 that it had been before.
That Millfield had been up 32-3 really was a demonstration of the quality that they possess though, and it is not just those magicians in the backline either. The likes of Henry Peck and Josh Bayliss had monumental games, fresh from receiving their colours after the St Josephâ€™s Festival. There performances are perhaps best put into context by explaining that Peck got through the workload of a back row forward, as a tighthead, yet Bayliss still managed to maintain that front row/back row workrate gulf, which meant he had got through a ridiculous amount.
That will be key at Allianz Park in the semi final on the 26th November against Grammar School at Leeds, who beat Barnard Castle 29-15. The Yorkshire side have some powerful forwards and fast backs and on a pitch that will not tear up or slow down one bit at Allianz Park, workrate will be key for both sides.
Oakham will ultimately be proud of their run in this tournament, they might not have got the victory they hoped for in Somerset today, but after a quiet couple of years they have firmly ensured that everyone remembers that they are a serious rugby force, and they have played and acted like such.
Millfield were just a step too far for them, and this famous rugby school will head into the final in two weeks time full of confidence and desperate to claim a second title of the season.
As Millfieldâ€™s favourite hashtag goes, â€˜Brimâ€™ knows best, and it seems that it is not just on the pitch that he and Director of Rugby John Mallet know their stuff, their knowledge on assembling a stand in coaching team seems pretty solid too. Chapeau to Andy Collins and Mike Baxter.
As ever, Millfield are a special group to watch play rugby.
Full Time: Millfield 32-17 Oakham
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