After two defeats on the bounce, Saturdayâ€™s game against Tonbridge was a must win game for Dulwich College, who were desperate to regain momentum having been unbeaten up to that point.
Tonbridge are no easy side to face though, they had been on a three game unbeaten streak since half term, and though they had lost four games before the break, they had been by a collective total of just fifteen points, three of the four were by two or less.
If there is one thing that Dulwich have become know for over these last three Schools Cup winning years though (other than that incredible maul!) it is their mental strength. Last year they were consistently underrated yet they defied those criticisms to go on to lift the NatWest Cup. Similarly this year, where after three cup wins in a row popular wisdom is that they surely cannot be that good again for a fourth year, yet their record and performances show otherwise. That takes tremendous strength of character.
That character was on full show on the lovely new Dulwich College 1st XV pitch as they showed tremendous strength in defence and some incredibly intelligent kicking to keep a desperate Tonbridge side at bay, whilst also scoring two superb tries to boot as they secured a 17-7 victory.
Tonbridge more than played their part, showing plenty of attacking threat and demanding that Dulwich raise their defensive game to that excellent level, whilst also defending brilliantly themselves, to the point that their work at the breakdown saw Tonbridge dominate possession for much of the game â€“ though Dulwich were happy to concede position in exchange for territory through much of the game, making possession stats somewhat skewed.
Through it all there was one man in both attack and defence for Dulwich who really stood out, left wing Reece Pinnock. It was only the second time that Fifteen Rugby had seen Pinnock in action, the first being at the St Josephâ€™s Festival. At St Joâ€™s he was excellent, scoring some brilliant tries, but it seemed yesterday that since then he has added even more to his game. Not only did he score a superb try to send his side 14-7 up just ahead of the break, he turned over ball repeatedly, sweeping in behind in tandem with his fellow back three players and providing a vital last line of defence.
It was a long long way from a one man performance though, and Dulwichâ€™s opening score demonstrated that as well as anything.
The try came within just a couple of minutes, Tonbridge were on the attack and looking threatening, however Dulwich secured the turnover, releasing full back Ralph Marchant from deep in his own 22.
Marchant scorched into the Tonbridge half before offloading to his supporting forwards. Some quick interplay between them saw right wing Omar Malik cut through surging from his right wing berth into the midfield and away and underneath the posts.
It was a brilliant piece of counter-attacking rugby, made through pace and precise passing. Against lesser teams it might have knocked the stuffing out of them but Tonbridge are a tough outfit, and as you would expect, they responded by raising their own game.
They launched a series of attacks deep in Dulwich territory, however the home defence was holding firm as the likes of Waugh, Berry, and Marchant kicked intelligently to force Tonbridge to start again from deep.
With the likes of Ben Earl in their ranks though, repelling Tonbridge is a task that can only be successful done for so long, and so it was as that man Earl eventually battered his way through the Dulwich defence and across the line with just over fifteen minutes of the half played. It was a classic Earl score, spotting the weak link in the defence and accelerating through and over it, leveling the scores at 7-7.
Tonbridge were now on top, at least in terms of possession and territory, yet there was a sense that Dulwich were reveling in their defensive effort, their supporters certainly were and that passion was equally evident in the players.
That passion was soon to hit fever pitch with just a couple of minutes left of the half as Pinnock scored his try. Collecting it wide on the left wing just inside the Tonbridge 22, Pinnock looked like he would have to cut back in, such was the Tonbridge drift. However with a brilliant turn of pace and a strong fend he somehow managed to create enough space to wriggle round the outside and speed inside to score a fantastic try, sending his side in at half time with a 14-7 lead.
Having secured a half time lead, Dulwich knew that another half of pressure from Tonbridge would be hard to repel, and duly changed their tactics somewhat is the second half. They opted to play for more territory, using their excellent kicking game and utilising a boggy corner on the bottom left hand corner of the pitch from Tonbridgeâ€™s point of view to keep the away side pegged back.
It worked to brilliant effect. Even when attacking around the Tonbridge 22, Dulwich looked to get the ball in behind the defence, knowing how hard it would be from Tonbridge to escape. So hard was it that Tonbridge were unable to get a single point in the second half, while Dulwichâ€™s reward for pegging the away side back was a solitary penalty, crucially taking them beyond a converted score ahead, at 17-7.
It would remain that way for the rest of the game, and it had to be said that it was a performance of impressive maturity from this Dulwich College side, made all the more impressive given the backdrop of two successive defeats and the absence of key 1st XV players Anthony Nzegwu and Pierre Thompson due to injury.
Tonbridge ought not to be too despondent ahead of their final clash of the term next week against Wellington College though, this was not a poor performance at all, they simply came up against a miserly defence and a side who were thinking their way around the park as much as playing their way around it.
As for Dulwich, with John Fisher visiting in midweek in the NatWest Cup, they will be full of confidence and looking forward to resuming action in the competition. If they can repeat this sort of form, a fourth Cup triumph in a row would start to look like a genuine possibility.
As ever, they have their stars but more than anything they are a team, and at any level, that makes a difference.
Full Time: Dulwich College 17-7 Tonbridge
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