Epsom College reached the Champions Trophy quarter finalists this afternoon, beating St John’s Leatherhead 29-12 in a brutal encounter.
Last year’s finalists had rested a number of players on Saturday against Canford, and having taken a bit of a hiding as a result, they had to come out against St John’s and put in a performance to justify it.
They more than did that, playing with a real intensity up front through the likes of James Gulliver, while outside centre Gareth Stephens was a constant threat. The boot of Adam Causer at full back proved a constant thorn in the side of St John’s too, as he slotted kick after kick from the most difficult of angles.
The game was billed as being a big derby game, and so it proved as both teams came out with a huge amount of intensity. The power of the hits was incredible, so much so that a number drew audible gasps from the watching crowd. This was school boy stuff on another level, physically.
That suited Epsom, who seemed the bigger side on average, but St John’s will be kicking themselves. The opportunity was there for the away side and they came so very close to clicking, a pass going to hand here, a bit more communication in defence there, and this could have been a different result.
A lot of that was down to Epsom’s quality though, as both backs and forwards put their opposition under pressure both in attack and defence, asking them to cover multiple options without the ball, and to make difficult decision under pressure with it.
That paid off as early as the eighth minute as Epsom crossed the line through the excellent Max Turner. The blindside flanker held his patience on the left wing and the St John’s numbers eventually ran out, allowing him a simple finish in the corner, which Causer then converted with what appears to be customary ease.
Nine minutes later Epsom doubled their advantage, this time capitalizing on their line speed as Stephens snaffled an interception and raced away from halfway to dot down for his side’s second try and a 14-0 lead following Causer’s conversion.
The game had been fairly even, but at 14-0 down it became imperative for St John’s to get the next score, which they duly did thanks to some excellent work from their skipper Kimball Klintworth, with Hugo Coughlan finishing.
That took the away side into the break at a more comfortable 14-5 deficit. However the first score in the second half was still crucial, and even though it was just a penalty for Epsom College, landed with aplomb by Causer, of course, it felt like a big moment.
St John’s are a resilient outfit though, and they went on to dominate the next fifteen minutes or so, eventually camping on the Epsom College line before scrum half Archie Dunnill sniped around the corner for a classic scum half try.
That made it 17-12, and left the spectators on the sidelines fancying this to go on to be a very tight game. However Epsom College were not finalists last year for nothing, they are a smart side who are able to raise their game right when it matters most.
So it proved here, within two minutes of St John’s scoring, Epsom were up at the other end scoring a wonderful try through number 8 James Gulliver, who ran through from thirty yards virtually unopposed after picked a perfect line following a fast ruck after a kick return.
Causer of course converted, and three minutes later he was standing over the tee again after Gulliver had blasted his way over for his second try. Epsom had seen the numbers on the left hand side and got the ball to the powerful centre early. The drift came, but once Gulliver was on the move there was no stopping this strong running centre. The only surprise came when Causer hit the post with the conversion.
At 29-12 that felt like the game, however this is the Champions Trophy. It is never that simple. And with ten minutes to go the game opened up again as Epsom College received a sin binning after slowing the ball down. They were slowing it because suddenly they were under pressure from a fast paced St John’s side who refused to give up.
The away side hammered away at the Epsom defence, but it was unyielding, their determination to see out the game from this winning position was laid bare for all to see.
That will fill Epsom with confidence heading into the quarter-final draw, where they join Monmouth, who had a bye, Blundell’s, who beat Bristol Grammar School in style, and Eton College, who were equally good against Grammar School at Leeds, and the other four quarter-finalists still to be decided.
St John’s will be bitterly disappointed, but will feel some comfort in knowing that they ran a very good Epsom side far closer than the scoreline suggests. This was a heavyweight contest, the sort of game that the Champions Trophy was made for.
Full Time: Epsom College 29-12 St John’s Leatherhead
You can see photos from the game on our Facebook Page here: Gallery: Epsom v St John’s.