Whitgift School clinched a strong second half performance with a try five minutes from time and then survived a last minute penalty attempt to edge Wellington College 15-14 in their annual fixture, dedicated to Seb Adeniran-Olule, a former pupil of both schools who tragically died earlier this year.
The annual fixtures between these two rugby powerhouses have produced some classic clashes over the years – the 33-33 draw in 2011 played in sweltering temperatures particularly comes to mind – and this promised to be no exception. Whitgift had won the Esher President’s Trophy while Wellington had followed emphatic wins over RGS High Wycombe and Dulwich with a close victory against perennial rivals Tonbridge.
Despite being delayed by traffic (causing a 30 minute delay to kick-off time), Wellington, playing with the advantage of both the slope and wind, had the better of the early exchanges. After No 8 Josh Basham and second row John Okafor had combined to make some hard yards, smooth handling by the backs took play into the Whitgift 22 and, although the home side were able to recover possession and clear to touch, a driving maul from the ensuing lineout too play close to the line and inside centre Rory McMichael dived over for the opening score, left wing Dylan Moss adding the conversion.
Whitgift responded straight from the restart. Following a charged down kick, they moved the ball left and took play deep into the Wellington 22. Although Wellington regained possession from a scrum and McMichael looked to run the ball out of defence, a penalty was conceded in front of the posts and fly half Matt Harrison was successful from the tee to reduce the deficit to 3-7 after 15 minutes.
Although the penalty county against Wellington was starting to build, they extended their lead with a piece of individual brilliance from full back Ben Loader, who carved through the midfield defence from half way to score under the posts, Moss converting. Despite this setback the home side’s forwards were starting to compete effectively at the breakdown. Further penalties conceded saw Whitgift drive deep into the left corner, and after yellow had been shown a maul was set up which took play right to the line. Although that was stopped just short, No 8 Cameron Wilkins picked up and dived through a gap to score by the posts, but the straightforward conversion was missed.
Half-time: Whitgift School 8-14 Wellington College
Whitgift set about making the most of the slope after half time. Good hands from the backs took play deep into the right corner where the defence was again penalised. The ball was then moved swiftly across the back line, but the final pass to left wing Funsho Ajayi, who had a clear overlap proved a little too fierce. Another great opportunity went begging minutes later on the opposite side, when again a try looked certain following further excellent handling along the Whitgift back line. It seemed that full back Noah Ferdinand might make the line himself but he unselfishly found unmarked right wing Thomas Griffiths only for the pass to fall to the ground to the anguish of the home supporters.
Both sides went to their benches, including changes at scrum half, Rory Hazelton coming on for Toby Wright and Freddie MacKaness replacing Oli Wilson. Whitgift continued to control the game, with occasional Wellington counter-attacks through their backs, Loader always looking dangerous. As it began to look that the home side would rue their two missed opportunities out wide, a further period of pressure saw Wellington again penalised close to their line. This time Whitgift opted to keep the ball in the forwards, and, although it the defence initially held firm, tight head prop Jumal Nelson somehow found a gap and forced his way over the score. The conversion from wide out on the left was not an easy one but Harrison held his nerve admirably and gave his side a one point lead.
With their lead snatched away, Wellington regained their handling magic and it was Whitgift’s turn to concede penalties. Loader, McMichael and Basham combined to put Moss into space in the left corner. Although the wing was stopped, another penalty was won: despite calls from the touchline to go for goal, Wellington chose to run it. Again the ball was moved through the hands, this time to the right, where the increasingly desperate defence was again penalised. With time running out, Wellington unsurprisingly opted to try for the three points, but the kick was not well struck and with the ball touched down the game was over and Whitgift were the first recipients of the new trophy.
Full time: Whitgift School 15-14 Wellington College
Whitgift School: Jacob Morris, Taine Wagstaff, Jumal Nelson, Louis Mack, George Hammond, Rordon Daws
Jake Monson, Cameron Wilkins (Vice-Capt), Toby Wright, Matt Harrison, Funsho Ajayi, Fergus Donnelly (Capt), Jack Forrest, Thomas Griffiths, Noah Ferdinand
Replacements: Cameron McClymont, Rory Hazelton
Wellington College: Oscar Boe, Fitz Harding, Callum Tilleray, John Okafor, Charlie Jupp, James Vyvyan, Tobias Scalabrini, Josh Basham (Capt), Oli Wilson, Will Sinfield, Dylan Moss, Rory McMichael, Jacob Webb, Ross Hanekom. Ben Loader (Vice-Capt)
Replacements: Bertie Cole-Fontayn, Freddie MacKaness, Frank Horsfield, Izaiha Moore