Kirkham Grammar School ran in three late tries, including two from captain Aaron Reed, against Abingdon School, after the home side had been unable to capitalise on sustained second half pressure.
With the onset of October half term seen by many schools as offering a welcome break from rugby fixtures, the St Joseph’s Festival is inevitably the highlight at this time, but there are a few other noteworthy fixtures. With neither Kirkham nor Abingdon entered for U18 Cup competitions and both schools thus looking for something special, this was a classic North vs. South match-up between two hitherto unbeaten sides. With each side including a core of Premiership Academy (Sharks or Wasps) players, the quality was assured, though Abingdon were forced to omit captain and No 8 Thomas Guthrie, injured during the warm-up, from their starting line-up.
After an early exchange of penalties by Abingdon full back Patrick Leggett and Kirkham fly half Kieran Wilkinson, it was the Lancashire side that gained the advantage. After driving by the forwards had taken play to the Abingdon 22, left wing Tom Carlton wriggled through in midfield before offloading to open side flaker Teddy Leatherbarrow who forced his way over the line, Wilkinson converting from in front of the posts.
Although the strength of the Kirkham forwards was further demonstrated by strong running from prop Matt Woodward and No 8 Sam Dugdale, it was Abingdon who looked the more likely to score next, taking play into the Kirkham 22 on the left. The ball was then moved through the hands to the right where wing Finn O’Hickey looked likely to score in the corner, but he was forced into touch by excellent cover defence just short of the line. Despite a succession of penalties, Abingdon were forced to settle for a further three points from the boot of Leggett, to which Wilkinson soon responded after a side entry at a ruck.
Abingdon again came back with pressure down the left, where, from an excellent box kick from scrum half Thomas Bishop, Kirkham blind side flanker Jorge Lewtas was penalised for a late tackle and received a lengthy warning from Referee Alex Rose. With their two tall second row forwards, Tom Haynes (captain on the day) and Charlie Sheppard, the Abingdon lineout was strong throughout, and having secured possession the ball was moved through the hands and the defence caught offside, enabling Leggett to narrow the gap from the tee to four points at the interval.
Half-time: Abingdon School 9-13 Kirkham Grammar School
The home side soon set about reducing the deficit after half-time, with pressure in the Kirkham 22, and further accumulation of penalty infringements saw Mr Rose show yellow to Kirkham second row Ewan Naylor. With the man advantage and camped in the slightly sloping last quarter of the pitch, Abingdon began a lengthy period of pressure on the Kirkham line. Inside centre Dave Telling found a good line to break through but was stopped just short.
A further penalty against Kirkham saw an attacking lineout on the 5m line and a try seemed inevitable. There had been mutterings from the Lancastrian supporters on the touchline at some of Mr Rose’s decisions, but they can have had few complaints when a collapsed maul led to a Kirkham scrum. With Naylor still in the bin, replacement Conor James came into the second row and full back Nathan Pope also joined the set scrum on the blind side. Despite these reinforcements, with the pitch cutting up badly, the Kirkham scrum was forced to give ground and it seemed for a moment that the Abingdon No 8 had picked up and scored, but the ball had been knocked forward. A second Kirkham scrum was again under severe pressure, but the ball was scrambled to Wilkinson who got away the clearance kick.
The pressure on the Kirkham line was not over however, and a sensational Abingdon kick to the right corner saw the ball roll into touch on the 1m line. Although Naylor returned for the ensuing line-out, it was the excellent Haynes who stole the Kirkham throw, and a try continued to seem likely for the home side, but they were ultimately forced to settle for a fourth Leggett penalty after the defence had been caught offside.
Although the gap was now down to a single point, it must have seemed to Kirkham as it they had scored, given the Abingdon dominance since the interval, and a change in momentum inevitably followed. Although Abingdon again won a penalty, touch was missed and Wilkinson was able to clear. From the run back of his kick, Leatherbarrow was dynamic at the breakdown and forced a penalty, kicked to touch. From the lineout, Naylor fed inside centre Connor Doherty who drew the defence before offloading to replacement Matt Gowe, who sliced through in midfield before finding Carlton out wide, and the left wing squeezed in to score in the corner.
Momentum was now with the visitors and, although Haynes continued to dominate the lineout, the Kirkham backs were starting to find openings. After pressure down the left, Carlton again came close and when the ball was recycled into midfield Wilkinson found outside centre and captain, Aaron Reed who went in under the posts, Wilkinson converting. Salt was rubbed into the wounds, as there was just time for Reed to show his pace, taking a superb line to break through the defence and run in from half way for another converted try.
The score-line might suggest a comfortable victory for Kirkham but that was absolutely not the case. This was one of the more exciting school games that I have seen this term, played in excellent conditions and in front of a vocal set of supporters from both sides. Had Abingdon been able to force a try during their long period of pressure after the interval, the outcome could have been very different.
Kirkham now face a trip to Dublin to meet the formidable Blackrock College next Saturday, and will also look forward to their traditional fixture next month against fellow North-West powerhouse Sedbergh. Abingdon will continue with their usual strong fixture list, culminating in a home fixture against Bedford.
Full time: Abingdon School 12-32 Kirkham Grammar School
Schools Rugby Correspondent
Abingdon School: George English, Henry Antonian, George Strange, Ed Adamson, Tom Haynes (captain), Charlie Sheppard, Wil Hayes, Thomas Bishop, Josep Lilley, Max Nurse Bosley, Dave Telling, Elliot Dandridge, Finn O Hickey, Patrick Leggett
Replacements: John Hobby, Luke Wilson, Thomas Harvey, Matthew Johnson
Kirkham Grammar School: Niall Cooney, Gabe Bland, Matt Woodward, Matt Ashcroft, Ewan Naylor,
Jorge Lewtas, Teddy Leatherbarrow, Sam Dugdale, Spencer Cope, Kieran Wilkinson, Tom Carlton,
Connor Doherty, Aaron Reed (captain), Henry Pearson, Nathan Pope
Replacements: James Tse, Matt Gowe., Alex Lewis-Booth, Leon Simpson, Conor James