Whitgift School U15s overcame a 19 point deficit to record a narrow victory over Hurstpierpoint College in the U15 Schools Cup London & South-East Division Group B final.
With both sides coming into the game undefeated, albeit having been playing on two very different circuits, this was an encounter undoubtedly worthy of the last 16 stage of the Cup. Whitgift, having had a rather stronger fixture list, were arguably the favourites on paper but there was every prospect of that being negated by Hurst’s home field advantage. With players from both sides being members of the Harlequins DPP programme it was no surprise the see the Quins Academy Head Coach on the touchline.
Thankfully the gale force winds that were sweeping the South-East had passed during the course of the morning and conditions were good despite overcast skies, with the 1st XV pitch only a little slippery on the surface. Hurst kicked off with the advantage of what remained of a chilly breeze, immediately conceding a penalty on half way that allowed Whitgift an early opportunity, from the ensuing lineout, to deploy their driving maul. The Hurst defence proved equal to the task and strong counter-rucking saw them regain possession and run out of defence. A well judged kick through by centre Chris Preen was carried over, giving the home side an attacking 5m scrum on the left, and good hands saw Preen dive over under the posts to open the scoring, scrum half Chris Lawson adding the extras.
The Hurst half backs were making good use of the breeze and a well judged box kick by Lawson saw Whitgift concede successive penalties, the second of which gave Hurst an attacking lineout inside the 22. The resulting maul was well organised and proved unstoppable, with No 8 Luke Woollard touching down in the corner.
The momentum was now fully with the Sussex school who were dominant at the breakdown, hooker Tom Routledge and flanker Adam Southern catching the eye, and a third try soon followed. After a mazy run by wing Ben Humphreys-Davis, small in stature but very quick of foot, and a well judged kick by fly half Freddie Longley had taken play into the Whitgift half, a fly hack through almost reached the line and the defence were forced to concede a penalty. Hurst opted for the scrum and once again Preen cut through to score under the posts, Lawson converting.
Whitgift, finding themselves three tries down half way through the first half and having had no quality ball, desperately needed to get points on the board. Good hands on the right finally got them within range of the Hurst line and unsurprisingly they looked to use their powerful forward pack with the pick-and-go tactic. Staunch Hurst defence kept them out and it looked as if the storm had been weathered, but possession was retained and, after the ball had been moved right by the backs, quick ruck ball saw No 8 Angus Sheahan crash over in the corner. Although centre Ed Volley’s touchline conversion attempt was unsuccessful, Whitgift were back in the game.
A second try for the Surrey school soon followed. Although an excellent break down the right touchline by wing Theo Saitch ended with a penalty being conceded, the throw into the resulting lineout eluded the jumper, and Whitgift moved the ball swiftly to the left where wing Fola Adedeji broke tackles to reach the 22. Play was taken on by the forwards and the ball again came to Adedeji who squeezed in at the corner.
Once again the restart proved a problem for the visitors, who conceded a penalty allowing Hurst to set up another attacking lineout in the left corner. This time the maul was successfully defended and although excellent tackling kept out both Longley and Preen, another penalty was conceded. The ball was moved quickly through the hands to the right and Humphreys-Davies just got the ball down in the corner, referee Phil Bowers checking with the touch judge before awarding the try.
A fourteen point lead at half time looked like a necessary cushion for the home side as they turned to face the breeze in the second half, but there was just time for Whitgift to narrow the gap. A excellent solo effort by Adedeji, who handed off a couple of would be tacklers saw the winger run in from half way to score in the corner.
Half-time: Hurstpierpoint College 24-15 Whitgift School
Although the second half got off to an inauspicious start with Whitgift being judged to have men in front of the kicker, the visitors did not take long to narrow the gap to one score. Strong driving by the forward pack took play close to the line and powerful second row Malachi Opara forced his way over close to the posts, Volley converting. Hurst then lost a key attacking resource when Humphreys-Davies tried to step his way through in heavy traffic but ran straight into Opara. The spectators winced at the collision between the lightest and (by several stones one would think) the heaviest player on the field. Thankfully the Hurst winger was able, after attention from the physios, to leave the field under his own steam.
A period of sustained pressure by Whitgift followed, with second row Jack Sharpe making some hard yards and hooker Piero Noah beginning to make his presence felt at the breakdown. Time and again the Whitgift pick-and-go was met by excellent defence and eventually fly half Eoin Finn resorted to a cross-kick to the right, but Hurst were able to win the ball to secure a 22 drop-out.
The respite was short-lived, as Hurst were soon penalised and a Whitgift maul set up in the right corner from the ensuing line-out, with Noah carrying the ball at the back. Although stopped, a second penalty saw the process repeated and massive pressure from the Whitgift forwards was met by excellent defence with the ball repeatedly stopped inches short. Finally it was Opara again who wrestled his way over and Mr Bowers was satisfied had the ball had been grounded.
Having fallen behind, Hurst had ten minutes to regain the lead that they had held for so long, but the momentum was still with the Surrey school who were clearly looking to extend their advantage. With more driving by the forward pack and Finn’s tactical kicking keeping play in the Hurst half, that seemed likely.
Both sides had given everything and some of the big Whitgift forwards were starting to tire. Suddenly Hurst at last managed to break out of their half, winning a penalty and driving the ensuing maul. Good ball retention saw play moved left with a break by full back Chris Anson, and then right where there seemed the chance of an overlap, but the final pass was spilled. That seemed to be Hurst’s last chance but there was one more twist, as Mr Bowers judged that the feed into the scrum was sufficiently crooked to award a free kick. There was time for one final series of thrusts by the Hurst backs from a few metres out, but the ball finally went forward and the final whistle was blown.
This was an enthralling battle and obviously a game of two halves. Whitgift were caught cold in the first quarter but totally dominated the second half and only some very spirited Hurst defence prevented them scoring several times. Adedeji’s second try just before half time proved crucial. They now await the quarter final draw.
Full time: Hurstpierpoint College 24-27 Whitgift School
Hurstpierpoint College: Jamie Phillips, Tom Routledge, Cameron Sturgeon, Tom Heal, Oskar Hicks, Adam Southern, Will Nielsen, Luke Woollard, Chris Lawson, Freddie Longley, Zac Riley, Chris Preen (Capt), Tom Wharton, Ben Humphreys-Davies, Chris Anson
Replacements: Oliver Owens, Tom Sheeran, Sam Clarke, Daniel Beattie
Whitgift School: Omari Malcolm, Piero Noah, Pierre-Loic Pennaneac’h, Jack Sharpe, Malachi Opara, Rory St Clair Alcock, Reis Norman(Capt), Angus Sheahan, Jake Murray, Eoin Finn (Vice-Capt), Fola Adedeji, Freddie Greene, Edward Volley, Theo Saitch, Gon Declercq
Replacements: Nathanael Adegoke, Lucas Bibb, Seb Stavri, Oliver Matthews, Tristan Faillenet, Edward Matthews, Jack Hawkins
Images via: Lorna Wallis