A late, long range penalty by Marcus Smith preserved Brighton College’s unbeaten record after Epsom College had scored the only try of the game to take a narrow second half lead.
This match-up consistently delivers close games of a high standard. The draw three years ago and Jordan Burns’ two tries a couple of year before that particularly spring to mind. Conditions were not well suited to running rugby, with heavy morning rain having turned to a steady drizzle and low cloud over the South Downs. With a “losing draw” against Cranleigh in the St Joseph’s Festival the only blemish on Brighton’s record, and a full strength Epsom side only having lost narrowly to Cranleigh, a titanic battle up front beckoned.
With injuries having taken their toll, neither of the two coaches – Nick Buoy and Paul Burke – was able to select what was potentially their strongest side. Brighton, who had benefited from some recent additional coaching from Alex King, were without England U16 players, full back Jon Searle and flanker Luke James. Epsom were still missing Quins Academy player / centre Gareth Stephens, and back row player James Gulliver was also unavailable after taking a knock in the midweek RFU Champions Trophy win over Blundells.
The home side soon suffered a further injury setback, losing centre Alfie Beadle – making his return from an injury suffered at St Joseph’s – in the first few minutes. The next quarter settled into an attritional contest between the two forward packs, with both sides having periods of territorial advantage. Finally the deadlock was broken when Epsom conceded a penalty on their 22, and Brighton fly half Marcus Smith was on target from the tee.
Epsom then worked hard to overcome the deficit, driving into the right corner. A lengthy period of pressure on the Brighton line ensued. With Epsom winning successive penalties and their powerful forwards using the pick and drive tactic inside the 5m line, in what was probably the key passage of play. The Brighton forward pack, comprising largely Lower VIth players, responded to the physical challenge with great courage and their outstanding defence eventually paid off when Epsom were penalised on the 2m line, enabling Smith to clear.
Half time: Brighton College 3-0 Epsom College
With the restart not going 10m, Epsom initially found themselves on the back foot aftert he interval, and it was now the turn of the Brighton forwards to show good ball retention, taking play to the Epsom 22. Although Epsom were able to clear, Smith showed that he has impressive running skills as well as kicking ability, beating several tacklers, but was isolated and penalised when eventually stopped.
The Epsom forwards were beginning to show signs of gaining the upper hand, both in the set piece and at the breakdown, with hooker and captain Callum Torpey making some hard yards, but Smith’s tactical kicking was keeping his side in the game. It was Brighton who scored next when Epsom were penalised within kicking range and Smith’s kick again bisected the posts.
Almost from the restart, Epsom struck back, creating space for scrum half Finlay Savill, who broke through the defence and sprinted to the line to score on the left from 30m out. With full back Adam Causer landing the conversion, the Surrey school now had a one point lead.
Both sides were now favouring their kicking games as they probed for an opening. Finally, driving by the Brighton forwards on half way forced another penalty, a couple of metres inside the Epsom half. Although directly in front of the posts, the distance looked to be at, if not beyond, the limit of most schoolboy place kickers, but Smith only hesitated momentarily before calling for the tee. His kick was beautifully struck and clearly had the legs. The direction was perfect too and the home side’s lead was restored.
After further kicking exchanges between Causer and Smith, Epsom worked to create one more scoring opportunity. With the excellent Causer as first receiver, and Torpey again to the fore, they managed to get across the gain line with some regularity, but never seriously threatened. After a strong carry by Brighton second row Dan Swarbrick, an offload to Zach Davies appeared momentarily to have put the inside centre clean through for a breakaway score, but play was called back for a forward pass, and time ran out with Brighton hanging to their narrow lead.
These were not the conditions for champagne rugby, but the intensity of play and physical commitment by both sides were outstanding. Epsom may feel a little unfortunate with the pressure before half time and having enjoyed a degree of dominance for much of the second half, but they lacked a little penetration behind the scrum and Smith’s game management for Brighton was ultimately the deciding factor.
Epsom will hope to be at full strength for their RFU Champions Trophy semi-final at home to Bedford on Thursday, when they will be aiming to avenge their defeat in last year’s final. Brighton look forward to their South Coast Derby against Eastbourne College.
Full time: Brighton College 9-7 Epsom College
Brighton College: Mike Key, Jay Parvin, Igor Dobserdov, Dan Swarbrick, Elliott Stiglitz, George Cook, Toby Smith, James Purbrick, Harry Venn, Marcus Smith (Captain), Henry Simpson, Zach Davies, Alfie Beadle, Josh Jones, Max Clarke
Epsom College: Nicholas Phizackerley, Callum Torpey (Captain), Toby Howarth, Felix Griffin, Matthew Buxton Smith, Max Turner, Tom Booker, Joshua Clark-Bell, Finlay Savill, Ben Holder, Callum Mullett, Logan Didier, Edward Hughes, Alexander Coe, Adam Causer
Replacements: Charlie Milne, Douglas McLean, Tom Byers, Jack Taylor