Dulwich College set up a chance to make history in the Champions Trophy following their 24-8 victory at St John’s Leatherhead in the semi final.
Were they to win the final, against a Blundell’s side that beat Kingswood 27-5 in the other semi final, Dulwich College would become the first side ever to win both the Schools Cup and Champions Trophy at U18 level, having won three Schools Cup titles in a row in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Those days might seem not too far away, but in school terms they are a lifetime away, the eldest in this group were at the very bottom of the senior school when the last of those titles was won.
This is a new group, under new coaches, playing in a new competition, and what a group it is. They played with superb heart, ambition, and determination on Thursday afternoon.
So too did St John’s, who more than played their part in a tense and exciting semi final. Credit goes to the whole school, they had pulled out all of the stops for the fixture, installing a temporary stand, organising a live stream out of their own pocket, and encouraging a huge crowd to get along to support their team.
Both sides were well supported and contributed to an excitable and joyful atmosphere that matched the excitement on the pitch.
Sometimes semi finals can fall a bit flat, but there is something about the Champions Trophy that is special, it always seems to produce special games of rugby.
It was Dulwich College that were out of the traps fastest, scoring first through their captain Oscar Gleave. It followed a series of driving mauls, a specialty of those title winning Dulwich College sides of the past, before Gleave went crashing over for the opening try.
Sunni Jardine converted for a 7-0 lead, and Jardine was having a superb game balancing his superb kicking game with his passing game to keep the St John’s defence guessing.
Mixing up those options was vital, as in Jordan Bond St John’s have a full back capable of terrorizing on the counter. By playing in his runners, Jardine could force the St John’s wingers into the line, allowing him more space when he did turn to the boot in order to keep it away from Bond.
Dulwich could have had another first half score, but openside Olu Odunlami was hauled down just short. It seemed to act as a shot in the arm for both St John’s and their support. They reacted positively, and began to really start to pressurise Dulwich in attack.
With a bit of momentum and a swell of noise and passion behind them, St John’s moved into the Dulwich 22, and when William Sanders hit a brilliant line from inside centre there was nothing that the away defence could do about it as he flew over the line to narrow things to 5-7.
With that came the half time whistle shortly after, ending a tense but exciting opening half of this second semi final. The battle for a place against Blundell’s in the final was very much on.
It was St John’s that grabbed the early initiative in the second half with a penalty through fly half Hugo Coughlan for an 8-7 lead, and they continued to put the pressure on once it had flown over.
If anything they looked to be the more likely side to score again in those opening exchanges, with Dulwich forced to find the touchlines through Jardine, Mikel Davies, and the excellent Max Bliss a little more than they would have liked.
From one such lineout though, the game changed. Tighthead Tom Brearley pounced on the ball and went on a surging run up the left hand touchline. It was glorious stuff, and set up the field position from which Dulwich would eventually move the ball out to the right hand touchline where a grateful Charlie Depel went flying across the whitewash for his side’s second try. Jardine, who was striking beautifully, slotted the tough conversion for a 14-8 lead.
St John’s came back again, but once more Dulwich were able to break away having gone through some terrific defence on the own 22. Moving into St John’s territory it was this time scrum half Mikel Davies that was the Dulwich hero.
Sniping at the breakdown Davies swopped under one tackle and wriggled over for a classic scrum half try. Big games of rugby are decided on these small moments of chance, daring, and skill and this was one. Single-handedly Davies seemed to be proving that rugby remains a game for all shapes and sizes, and this was a crowning moment on a superb display of composed half back play throughout.
Jardine converted, and suddenly an 8-7 deficit was now a 21-8 lead for Dulwich College. It had all happened rather quickly, and while there was time on the clock, there was a sense that St John’s now needed to score quickly to have a chance of winning the game.
Perhaps that sense spilled onto the pitch, for while St John’s did start to dominate possession and territory, there was a hastiness that perhaps, on reflection, cost them. Quick penalties were taken from deep when perhaps a little bit of time taken to gain some field position would have been better, but these are the small details that can swing the other way if they come off.
What was without question was that St John’s showed bagfuls of spirit as they took control of possession and moved into Dulwich territory. They forced penalties from the Dulwich pack, and while some might have been misused, they put the visitors under enormous pressure.
Pressure like that almost always yields penalties and eventually yellow cards, and so it proved here when Dulwich blindside Jack Ramsay took a spell in the bin. It was the sort of yellow that coaches do not mind too much though. In that situation preventing St John’s from scoring a try was key. The clock was with Dulwich so the longer St John’s had to wait to cross the line, the better.
As it turned out, the were not to cross the line at all, but they came oh so close, working a clever line out move for their outstanding captain and hooker, Jack Musk, to go crashing over. It sparked scenes of epic celebration, only for the referee to hear a call from his touch judge and head back for a Dulwich free kick – the ball had not gone five metres.
It was a heartbreaker for St John’s, and effectively ended their chances of a comeback. As time ticked away Dulwich broke back into St John’s territory, with Jardine eventually landing a penalty with the very last kick to give Dulwich a glorious 24-8 victory and a place in the Champions Trophy final.
It was a glorious game of rugby, fraught with tension and excitement. Both sides contributed immensely, but there could be no arguing with the result, Dulwich had executed superbly, and had defended outstandingly in the face of a tremendous St John’s onslaught in that final ten minutes or so.
Champions Trophy Final: Blundell’s v Dulwich College (Allianz Park, Wednesday 6th December, 14.15 ko.)
Dulwich now move on to the Champions Trophy final against a Blundell’s side that are on fire. On Wednesday the Devon men secured a quite outstanding 27-5 victory over Kingswood in their semi final, a side that had previously been unbeaten.
Blundell’s themselves have only lost the one game this season, to the outstanding Canford, and have a number of signature victories to their name, not least a stunning 45-15 away win at Millfield, a truly brilliant result.
It sets us up for what ought to be another genuinely exciting and high quality Champions Trophy final, between two sides with great stories to tell. For Blundell’s it is a story of finally making it after years of heartbreak at the hands of the same opponent, Epsom College, while for Dulwich it is about making history, being the first side to win the Schools Cup and Champions Trophy, and moving out of the shadow of those glorious teams of 2012, 2013, and 2014.
It ought to be a superb final, and it all takes place in the glorious setting of Saracens’ Allianz Park at 14.15 on Wednesday 6th December.
Full Time: St John’s Leatherhead 8-24 Dulwich College
Champions Trophy Semi Final Results:
Blundell’s 27-5 Kingswood
St John’s, Leatherhead 8-24 Dulwich College
15 Jordan Bond, 14 Peter Sinclair, 13 Jack Potter, 12 William Sanders, 11 Ben Tudor, 10 Hugo Coughlan, 9 Oliver Penfold, 1 Josh Williams, 2 Jack Musk (c), 3 Luke Trimming, 4 Thomas Davison, 5 James White, 6 Ethan Binns, 7 William Freeman, 8 Raef Murphy.
Replacements: 16 William Grootheddie, 17 Josh Hay, 18 Daniel Craig, 19 Archie Stevens, 20 Jack Rickerd, 21 Thomas Wood, 22 Owen Rowlands.
15 Max Bliss, 14 Femi Sofolarin, 13 Oscar Gleave (c), 12 Matthew O’Flaherty, 11 Louis Ferrari, 10 Sunni Jardine, 9 Mikel Davies, 1 Tyreece Asamoah, 2 Louis Wright, 3 Tom Brearley, 4 Enzo Croy, 5 Noah Cooper, 6 Jack Ramsay, 7 Olu Odunlami, 8 Haydn Oakley.
Replacements: 16 Charlie Depel, 17 George Duggan, 18 Tom Wade, 19 Ziyad Elkhawad, 20 Luke Casteskiold, 21 Lucas Wilson, 22 Alex Cahill.
Champions Trophy Quarter Final Results:
Kingswood 20-13 Eton College
Bromsgrove 19-37 Dulwich College
Stowe 3-16 Blundell’s
Grammar School at Leeds 17-24 St John’s Leatherhead
Champions Trophy Round 2 Results:
Bedford 17-29 Kingswood
Berkhamsted 17-33 Dulwich College
Bryanston 10-15 Eton College
Epsom College 7-31 Blundell’s
Grammar School at Leeds 17-11 Wellington College
RGS Guildford 22-37 Bromsgrove
St John’s Leatherhead 39-25 Tonbridge
Stowe 19-12 Millfield
Champions Trophy Round 1 Results:
Bromsgrove 34-5 Monmouth
Bryanston 47-37 Bristol Grammar
Dulwich College 43-12 St Paul’s
Grammar School at Leeds 38-24 Oakham
Marlborough College 3-22 Kingswood
Radley College 17-32 Berkhamsted
RGS Guildford 38-0 Caterham
Sherborne 7-18 Blundell’s
St John’s, Leatherhead 61-14 King’s Canterbury
Stowe 47-17 St Albans
Byes – Bedford, Epsom College, Eton College, Millfield, Tonbridge, Wellington College