Three tries in just over five minutes by hooker Piero Noah in a closely fought encounter with local rivals Trinity School were just enough to see Whitgift School through to the London & South-East Division Group finals of the U15 Schools Cup.
Any game between these two schools, both members of The Whitgift Foundation, is sure to be keenly contested, and with a place in the last 16 of the U15 Cup up for grabs, that was sure to be especially so on this occasion. Both teams have players in the Harlequins Academy to they will have been aware of their respective strengths. Whitgift, with an unbeaten record, looked favourites on paper, with Trinity after a strong start to the season having lost three of their last four.
With a bitterly cold northerly wind sweeping across the Bigside pitch Trinity kicked off, playing up the slope and had a chance to open the scoring when Whitgift were penalised just outside their 22, but fly half Lorcan O’Byrne Nestor’s kick from the tee was just wide. Trinity were looking to get the ball wide to their speedy backs and good hands on the right enabled Nathan Barnwell to demonstrate that he is a fine rugby player as well as an outstanding cricketer as the outside centre made an impressive break. With Whitgift then penalised and a Trinity line-out set up on the right, the ball was moved quickly to the left, but the Whitgift defence was able to force play into touch.
With possession secured, Whitgift scrum half Jake Murray’s box kick saw the pressure relieved and their forwards took play into the Trinity 22 after a strong carry by powerful second row Malachi Opara. However a handling error allowed the visitors to regain possession at the set scrum and left wing Ayomipo Femi-Osinubi showed excellent pace to run out to half way, where Whitgift were penalised. O’Byrne Nestor’s kick to the left corner set up a line-out on the 5m line and with possession secured the Trinity forward pack showed good body positions to drive the ensuing maul to the line, second row Archie Pearson touching down for the opening score. O’Byrne Nestor’s touchline conversion attempt into the wind was unsuccessful.
It looked as if the home side would level the scores when their forwards drove to the line but their celebrations proved premature and earned only some stern words from Referee Mr Wagstaff who judged that the ball had been held up. Trinity were eventually able to clear and after a strong run by captain and second row Thomas Haunstetter it was Barnwell who made another line break into the 22 and Trinity won an attacking scrum 5m out. With possession secured from the set piece, play was switched left and a try seemed certain with a clear overlap, but the ball was dropped a couple of metres out.
Trinity continued to apply pressure, as the pass away from the base of the ensuing scrum eluded the receiver and went dead, giving the visitors another attacking scrum. With the defence forced to concede a penalty, a second score seemed likely, but although Trinity were able to retain possession, the defence held firm and eventually forced a penalty which enabled them to clear to half way. Another penalty there then set up a Whitgift line-out in the right corner, from which a maul was set up. When that was successfully defended the home side forwards used the pick-and-go tactic only a couple of metres out. That was resisted half a dozen times as the Trinity defence met the physical challenge but eventually hooker Piero Noah forced his way over in the corner, and captain Connor Slevin produced a tremendous kick from the touchline to give Whitgift a halftime lead which rather belied the balance of play thus far.
Half time: Whitgift School, Croydon U15 7-5 Trinity School, Croydon U15
The second half opened as the first had ended, with Whitgift winning an attacking scrum in the left corner, from which the forwards drove close to the line. The initial thrusts were resisted by the defence but it was again Noah who crashed over to score, Slevin again adding the conversion. Following the restart, a well weighted grubber kick was put into the corner by fly half Eoin Finn and the Referee judged that it had been touched by a Trinity player, giving Whitgift the throw into the uncontested line-out. With possession secured it was again Noah who squeezed in at the left corner. The conversion attempt was unsuccessful.
Having arguably enjoyed most of the territory and possession in the first half, Trinity had suddenly found themselves two scores behind. With over 20 minutes to go, hey set about using the wind and slope advantage to close the gap. They soon took play deep into the Whitgift 22, fist on the right then on the left, where they won a penalty, kicked to the corner. Although the defence were able to regain possession at the ensuing maul, the clearance kick was fielded on the 22 by Barnwell and run back deep into the right corner. Possession was retained and the ball moved swiftly through the hands to create an overlap on the left and Femi-Osinubi sprinted in the score in the corner. The conversion attempt from wide out was unsuccessful.
Another score for the visitors at this stage would have made for a pulsating last few minutes. Although Whitgift were able to take play into the Trinity 22, O’Byrne Nestor cleared comfortably. With Whitgift forced to concede successive penalties in midfield, O’Byrne Nestor put the ball into the corner and another period of pressure on the Whitgift line ensued. It seemed that inside centre and captain Sam Tilley might make it to the line but he was stopped just short and Whitgift were able to clear. That proved to be the last clear scoring chance for the visitors as Whitgift managed to run down the clock with their powerful forwards making hard yards. Although one more attacking maul was set up inside the home side’s 22, it was well defended and the final whistle was reached without further addition to the score.
Whitgift will now travel to face the winners of the tie between Simon Langton GS and Hurstpierpoint College. With Hurst also unbeaten and having overcome Trinity 33-0 a couple of weeks ago, it would an enthralling match-up were they to face Whitgift. Trinity can be proud of the way that they faced up to the physical challenge presented by what is a very strong Whitgift side: the balance of play would have indicated no more than a single score margin.
Full time: Whitgift School, Croydon U15 19-10 Trinity School, Croydon U15
Schools Rugby Correspondent
Whitgift School: Pierre-Loic Pennaneac’h, Piero Noah, , Omari Malcolm, Malachi Opara, Oliver Matthews, Rory St Clair Alcock, Reis Norman (Vice-Capt), Angus Sheahan, Jake Murray, Eoin Finn (Vice-Capt), Fola Adedeji, Edward Volley, Connor Slevin (Capt), Theo Saitch, Gon Declercq
Replacements: Nathanael Adegoke, Lucas Bibb, Seb Stavri, Edward Matthews, Freddie Greene, Jack Hawkins, Tristan Faillenet
Trinity School: Moyo Ayokun, Joshua Moore Prempeh, Benjamin Wilding, Archie Pearson, Thomas Haunstetter (Capt), Joe Connolley, Tiwa Ajayi-Obe, Shola Adesina, Harrison Friday, Lorcan O’Byrne Nestor, Ayomipo Femi-Osinubi, Sam Tilley (Vice-Capt), Nathan Barnwell, Seun Ogunyemi, Bertie Little
Replacements: Charlie Haydon, Zach Figueira, George Papa, Yaadhavan Thevathas, Fiontan Logan, Robert Ingamells, Mathys Damblant