Two first half tries for Charlie Spawforth gave Tonbridge School a sufficient cushion to enable their defence to resist a late rally by Eton College in the first of the 2016 RFU Champions Trophy quarter finals
This competition can often bring matchups between schools that have never played each other or can provide local Derbies. This game featured two schools that know each other well,with a long established block fixture that now provides the finale to their seasons. Eton, with a side based on their outstanding 2013 U15 team, had enjoyed victory by a wide margin over The Grammar School at Leeds in the previous round, while Tonbridge had eliminated 2014 winners Millfield. A close contest seemed assured.
With the mild autumn weather finally starting to break, a chilly breeze was blowing from the North-East under overcast skies, but the Eton ground staff had The Field – surely one of the biggest playing areas in schools Rugby – looking in great shape. After Eton had kicked off, the powerful Tonbridge front five quickly asserted themselves, with props Blaize Mott and George Head breaking into space down the left. An early score looked likely but when the Tonbridge captain surprisingly opted for a grubber kick the opportunity was lost.
Tonbridge looked dominant in the set scrums and regularly stole Eton throws in the line-out. The resulting first phase possession brought the first score after fifteen minutes. Although hard yards by the Eton No 8, their go-to ball carrier, had temporarily relieved pressure inside the 22, a knock-on gave Tonbridge an attacking scrum. From that, fly half David Wilkinson broke into the Eton 22 and fed outside centre Charlie Spawforth who outpaced the defence to score on the right. Wilkinson’s conversion attempt struck a post but stayed out.
The visitors struck again almost from the restart, and it was again Wilkinson who created an opportunity for Spawforth. The fly half broke clean through the Eton defensive line in midfield before offloading to Spawforth who had a clear run to the left corner. Wilkinson’s touchline conversion attempt was well struck to stretch the margin to twelve points.
With these two quick scores and control of the set piece, a comfortable win for Tonbridge looked likely, but some indiscipline led to a shift in momentum. A succession of penalties kicked to the corner by the Eton fly half was initially resisted by the defence thanks to the home side’s continued problems at the lineout. When those were resolved with a short throw tactic the Eton scrum half crossed in the corner but lost control of the ball before he could touch down.
Despite this setback Eton continued to enjoy good field position, with good ball retention and their No 8 and full back both carrying effectively. Desperate Tonbridge defence led to more penalties being conceded, but the opportunity to get three points on the board was eschewed, as those were kicked to the right corner. The tactic looked as it it might pay off, but an illegal intervention by Head at a maul, for which the Tonbridge captain was perhaps fortunate to escape with only a penalty, the referee having already issued a warning, followed by an overthrown ball at the ensuing lineout left the home side scoreless at the interval.
Half-time: Eton College 0-12 Tonbridge School
Eton began the second half in energetic fashion, possibly boosted by the vocal crowd that was now lining the touchline having completed training on neighbouring pitches. Despite that, the Kent side stretched their lead to a three score margin after Eton were penalised on their 10m line and Wilkinson’s long range kick bisected the posts.
The Eton backs were now starting to threaten and their outside centre displayed outstanding pace to break through on the left. Although he was eventually stopped, Tonbridge were penalised at the resulting ruck and the referee’s patience was tested once too often, flanker Ollie Wildblood being shown yellow. This time the call went out to take the points and the Eton fly half made no mistake from the tee.
With a man advantage, Eton continued to press, forwards and backs combining effectively, but a run from the base of a scrum by Tonbridge No. 8 Adam Petry relieved the pressure, and when Eton were penalised Wilkinson continued his impressive kicking form to re-establish a three score advantage. However this was only a temporary respite for the Tonbridge defence, as the Eton backs were beginning to penetrate, taking advantage of Tonbridge kicking away possession and their left wing moving infield and providing a constant threat with ball in hand. It seemed a try must come for the home side when a clear overlap was created on the left, but the final pass was dropped.
Despite having missed a second excellent scoring opportunity, Eton continued to press as the Tonbridge kicking game fed them with a regular supply of ball. After a brilliant 30 metre solo run out of defence by Tonbridge second row Nico Lykiardopoulos had given a temporary respite, the Eton 11 again broke into the Tonbridge 22 and the pressure on the Tonbridge defence resumed. The Eton full back continued to break the first line of defence and after one of these incursions the ball was recycled to the forwards and the No 4 made some hard yards close to the posts before offloading to the replacement flanker who crashed over.
Although the fly half’s conversion was successful Eton still required two scores with time running out. A combination of fresh Eton legs and tiring Tonbridge forwards had by this stage led to a shift of momentum up front, with the Eton pack now on top in the set scrums. However Tonbridge managed to keep play outside their 22 and greeted the full time whistle with relief.
These teams are due to meet again on 3rd December (just after the scheduled Champions Trophy final date). In the meantime Tonbridge face another stern test against Harrow, while awaiting the results of next week’s three other quarter finals.
Full Time: Eton College 10-18 Tonbridge