Tonbridge School secured a maiden NatWest Champions Trophy title as they beat the holders, Bedford School, 17-10 this afternoon at Allianz Park.
The Kent side were in formidable form all afternoon long as they largely dominated the play on Saracens’ artificial surface against a very tough Bedford side.
That toughness and skill from both sides led to a fantastic game of rugby and a superb atmosphere, aided by both schools bringing an army of supporters, which saw the main stand at Allianz Park absolutely packed out.
Tonbridge’s victory, much like Millfield’s in 2014, is exactly why this tournament was created. Many of these one-term rugby schools never entered the U18 NatWest Cup but this one-term tournament was designed to bring schools into the national knock-out set up that previously were not an to pit them against sides that they would not ordinarily face.
These two do normally face each other, and it is usually a superb spectacle. That was more than the case once again here at Allianz Park as these two big packs brutally went head to head, while their skillful, yet equally physically impressive, backlines added some real gloss.
It was no coincidence that the man of the match award went to Tonbridge loosehead Blaize Mott, with his captain and front row partner George Head not far behind. It was that sort of game as the Tonbridge tight five exerted their usual, and considerable, presence on the game.
They dominated the early period of the game, creating close to ten try-scoring opportunities in the first half, however the outstanding Bedford defence held firm.
The men in red showed the sort of defensive strength that helped them through their tough semi final against Epsom College, and that strong defence was made worth it fifteen minutes in when a stunning 25 metre driving maul was eventually finished off by openside Conor Finch.
Bedford skipper Fraser Dingwall, once again in fine form added the extras to give the holders a 7-0 lead, but Tonbridge hit back quickly. They surged upfield with their pack, sucking in more and more Bedford defenders before spinning the ball wide of left wing Oliver Ward to go scything over from.
David Wilkinson added the extras to level the game, but was unfortunately forced to leave the field through injury not long after.
For many that would spell disaster however, as in the semi final, up stepped second for Declan Sinclair to take over the kicking duties in true John Eales style.
He was not called into action again in the first half though as referee Luke Pearce blew the whistle with the sides still level at 7 apiece.
Though level, Tonbridge would have been by far the happier side as they went into the break, however when play resumed it was Bedford who looked like the side who might go on and grab the game by the scruff of the neck as Dingwall and Strachan in the centres really began to come into the game more and more, while their kicking game was putting Tonbridge under real pressure.
Full credit to Tonbridge though, they weathered that early bit of Bedford momentum and then found their way back on to, with outside centre Charlie Spawforth really starting to create some mayhem in midfield.
Building the phases the worked their way into Bedford territory, putting real pressure on that red wall of defence before skipper George Head took possession five yards from the try-line. The Tonbridge talisman smashed his over the line for a crucial try, which Sinclair turned into a seven pointer with ease.
With twenty minutes left on the clock there was the potential for the men in black and white to pull away, but some sloppy work form the restart allowed Dingwall a penalty to reduce the gap to 14-10 and kill the momentum stone dead.
That sort of quick response might have rattled other teams in schools rugby, perhaps most other teams. Not this group of Tonbridge players though, and not on this day. It was from this moment on that you really got the sense that Tonbridge just simply were not going to allow themselves to be beaten. Not matter what Bedford could throw at them, they would not yield.
That is what has been so special about them on this Cup run, they have absorbed whatever is thrown at them. In their semi final at Oakham they could easily have become frustrated at a sustained defensive effort that was holding their progress up, instead they remained patient and eventually the scores came.
Here the scores came earlier, but that same patience was still needed, and was rewarded with just a couple of minutes left on the clock as Sinclair capped a brilliant tournament for him personally, and for the team as a collective, by banging over a penalty to seal the game at 17-10.
It is a truly outstanding achievement from Tonbridge, an achievement that must rank alongside those fantastic unbeaten outfits from the 2005-2007.
Credit must also go to Bedford though, their play throughout this tournament has been fantastic and this final, against such an physical and tactically aware Tonbridge side, was just a bridge to far for them. To reach the final two years in succession is still highly impressive, particularly in a competition that demands so much of the players as it has meant a Saturday-Wednesday-Satuday schedule for much of the season.
The final word must go to Tonbridge though. They gave everything in this final in front of a huge crowd. Credit must go not only to the players and coaches Chris Morgan and the returning Graeme Gales, but also to the school themselves for so enthusiastically supporting their side, forgoing afternoon lessons to send bus loads of pupils to go an support their sides.
In the end it made a difference, and will give the whole school pride. For those involved on the pitch though, this is a memory that will last a lifetime. These are the moments that we all hope to play sport for, for these lucky few here at Allianz Park in black and white it is something that they will always be able to cherish.
For those of us lucky enough to witness it, it will stick long in the memory too. Two great schools rugby sides playing rugby of a calibre that more than befitted the professional surrounds that it was played in.
Full Time: Bedford 10-17 Tonbridge
15 Alfie Orchard, 14 Ben Kight, 13 Fraser Strachan, 12 Fraser DIngwall (c), 11 Faysal Olabooye, 10 Edward Johnson, 9 Jack Dalton, 1 Colston Kane, 2 William Kerr, 3 George Seward, 4 Ted Hicks, 5 Joseph Rogers, 6 Oliver Hind, 7 Conor Finch, 8 Ryan Hussey.
Replacements: 16 Peter Jamieson, 17 William Entwistle, 18 Harry Donougher, 19 Matthew Fordham, 20 Jason Van Der Walt, 21 William Bowes, 22 Elliott Wingfield.
15 Suanu Saro-Wira, 14 Harry Rees, 13 Charlie Spawforth, 12 Ben Devaney, 11 Oliver Ward, 10 David Wilkinson, 9 Charlie Mullins, 1 Blaize Mott, 2 Drew Dainton, 3 George Head (c), 4 Nico Lykiardopolous, 5 Declan Sinclair, 6 Ollie Wildblood, 7 Dylan Taylor, 8 Adam Petry.
Replacements: 16 Jack Prideaux, 17 Will Hockley Smith, 18 Jack Harvey, 19 Harry Hind, 20 Guy Collins, 21 Matteo Petrozzi.