From day one of the 2017/18 season, Wellington College v Sedbergh at Broadstreet RFC always looked as though it would be a defining game.
So it proved on Wednesday evening as these two met in a key game that looks set to decide the outcome of the 2017 Daily Mail Trophy. An outstanding ten minute second half period from Sedbergh blew Wellington College away, securing a 39-16 victory and handing them the chance to wrestle the title away from Wellington for the first time in three years.
Last year this fixture was hotly anticipated, but unfortunately was forced to be called off at the last minute, all but handing the title to Wellington. This year it was crucial, a win for Wellington would all but seal it even with a game to spare, but Sedbergh’s victory puts the Cumbrians in driving seat, they now head the table and if they can navigate through to secure at least one bonus point win from the next two games the title is theirs.
Frankly though, this game went far beyond the Trophy. This was simply about two teams right at the top of schoolboy rugby going full blast on a cold winter’s night in the Midlands.
They did not disappoint. What unfolded was a tight and tense game of rugby that exploded into life in the second half, with a truly remarkable ten minutes or so from Sedbergh in the middle of the half.
Both sides are packed with Academy and England U18 stars, not least Sedbergh skipper Cameron Redpath who has started twice for Sale Sharks’ 1st XV this season. That quality simply added to the anticipation, and with the England U18 coaching staff and countless academy staff surrounding the touchlines, it was clear from the off that this was no ordinary school game.
The great shame was that Wellington were so injury hit, missing eight players at the start of the game, we could have been looking at even more of a classic if they had had a few of those available.
From the onset it was clear that Wellington, with a stiff breeze behind them, probably just about had the edge in the tight and in terms of dictating the territory and tempo of the game. That was crucial, because Sedbergh looked like they wanted to play with real ambition and daring, and when they were on the front foot or they moved the ball wide, it was them that had the edge.
The agenda for the game was set, Wellington needed to pressurize Sedbergh ball, Sedbergh needed to get to the front foot and move it wide. Through the first half it was Wellington that got the upper hand in that battle, putting real pressure on at ruck time and giving Sedbergh scrum half Jonny Mason the scrappiest possible ball.
Their back row of Nicholas Teague, Tobias Scalabrini, and captain Fin Rossiter were getting through a real shift, and the rewards came 16 minutes in when Rossiter, or at least it looked like him through the flickering light of the floodlights, scuttled over from short range to give the reigning champions a 5-0 lead.
5-0 was quickly 8-0 when Will Sinfield banged over a long range penalty, the inside centre was another to get through staggering amount of work. Sedbergh hit back with seven minutes left in the half though through a Josh Hodge penalty, but Sinfield responded just a couple of minutes later from an 11-3 lead.
At the point it felt as though Sedbergh might be staring down the barrel a little. On a cold night it seemed like a tight compact game had won out over a wide and expansive one, and in those circumstances, Wellington had the edge.
Hope came right on the stroke of half time though when second row Jack Hill crashed over for his side to reduce the arrears to 11-8 at the break. It was an exceptional try for the sheer bravery of it. All game Sedbergh had demonstrated that they were willing to try things, and here was a golden example, the big second row taking a tap penalty five metres from the line after some solid pressure. Here was the mantra that John Fletcher, Peter Walton, and Russell Earnshaw have been espousing in action, and boy did it work.
Into the second half though and still the game remained tight, for twenty minutes the two sides swung back and forth but with neither able to break though until 55 minute mark, Sedbergh exploded.
Four tries in less than ten minutes followed in what was one of the most clinical periods of quality that you are likely to see. Sedbergh were simply outstanding and at the heart of it was Tom Curtis at fly half and Cameron Redpath at inside centre.
They were instrumental in creating the line breaks, but it was the handling from every single player of the field that was really exceptional. From 1-15 they showed an ability to make decisions under pressure, to handle the ball and move at pace, and it created carnage.
First they scored through the forwards, a powerful break down the same channel that Wellington had scored their try. They then reclaimed the kick off an set off downfield before Redpath spotted a gap and scythed through, with Hodge converting. 11-8 was suddenly 20-11.
The next one, just five minutes after the first of this quick blast of tries, was arguably the best. Wellington actually secured the restart and went about building an attack. They had the Sedbergh defence stretched but an outstanding defensive decision from Tom Walsh on the wing, who along with James Magee on the other wing had an electric second half, saw him come in and rip the ball away from the Wellington player, collecting man and ball and emerging with it.
Eventually the ball ended up in England prop Bevan Rodd’s hands. The loosehead is highly thought of and showed just why as he remained patient with the ball in hand as he charged down the winging, holding off the easy early passes to make sure that he drew his man and released Walsh to surge down the left hand touchline for a stunning counter-attacking try.
Three minutes later they were at it again, this time Curtis charging up field, weaving this way and that as would-be tacklers were mesmerised. The crucial pass went to ground, however in a moment reminiscent of Simon Zebo against Wales back in 2013, James Magee stuck out a leg to the bouncing ball behind him and sent a controlled hack into the dead ball area. Showing stunning pace he beat the chasing defence to dot down for his side’s fifth try, and their fourth in less that ten minutes.
When Hodge converted the scoreline that just ten minutes earlier had been 8-11 was now 32-11. No side in the country could have lived with it, it was intense, it was ambitious, and it was clinical. In ten minutes they had scored more points against Wellington than any other side has scored across an entire game against them this year. As much as anything else, that statistic tells you everything you need to know about this exceptional Sedbergh group.
This is an exceptional Wellington group too though, and they showed that just a few minutes later. Any other side in the country might have lost their heads, it is hard not to when something like that happens. Not this group though, they rallied and scored a superb try in the right hand corner through substitute Joe Simpson.
They might have had another a couple of minutes later, only for some stunning work under the high ball from a cross field kick saw Walsh halt a certain try and then put his side back on the attack. Eventually the field position led to another break from the exceptional Tom Curtis, who dotted down under the sticks to give Hodge an easy conversion, and his team a stunning 39-16 victory.
Wellington had been blown away by a ten minute spell of intense and clinical attacking play that few could handle. If the scoreline makes it look one-sided though, do not be fooled, Wellington more than held their own, and for 55 minutes they held the upper hand in this game.
The simple fact was that these are probably the two best teams in the country, and they put on a performance that reflected that. As temperatures hovered near freezing, those watching were warmed by the knowledge that they were witnessing something very very special.
Sedbergh now have the Daily Mail Trophy in their hands, it is theirs to lose having been in Wellington’s clutches for nigh on three years. The reigning champions still have a chance though, and will Millfield and QEGS Wakefield to come for Sedbergh, anything could happen.
On this sort of form though, you would back Sedbergh to get the job done, and if they do then not only will they finally have their hands on the silverware, they will also have a remarkable unbeaten season, despite one of the toughest fixture lists around. This truly is a remarkable group of players.
Full Time: Sedbergh 39-16 Wellington College
Images via Richard Papworth
15 Josh Hodge, 14 Tom Walsh, 13 Henry Foster, 12 Cameron Redpath (c), 11 James Magee, 10 Tom Curtis, 9 Jonny Mason, 1 Bevan Rodd, 2 Ben Patchett, 3 Will Cartlidge, 4 Jack Hill, 5 Rouban Birch, 6 Harry Hill, 7 Charlie Papworth, 8 Rob Farrar.
16 Edward Martin, 17 Harry Woods, 18 Alex Mullins.
15 Frank Horsfield, 14 Tom Offord, 13 Joe Henry, 12 Will Sinfield, 11 Edward Bagley, 10 George Timberlake, 9 Jamie Miller, 1 Tom Reader, 2 Ben Raho, 3 Fin Baxter, 4 Thomas Spencer-Jones, 5 Sam James, 6 Nicholas Teague, 7 Fin Rossiter (c), 8 Tobias Scalabrini.
16 Joe Simpson.