2019 U18 Schools Plate champions Bloxham School overcame a narrow half time deficit and produced a strong second half performance against The Grammar School at Leeds, to secure a 15-12 victory in the first of the semi-finals.
Both schools had exited the first round of the Schools U18 Cup, having drawn strong opposition in their respective groups. For Bloxham, this was familiar territory, having followed a similar route last season, that campaign culminating in a win over Sherborne (semi-finalists in this year’s U18 Cup) at Sixways. Having played last year’s semi-final away at Oundle, this was a tremendous opportunity for them to host a big game. GSAL had entered the Champions Trophy in recent seasons, the highlight being a narrow defeat to Millfield in the inaugural final of that competition.
The Bloxham ground staff are to be congratulated on their efforts to combat the ravages of recent storms and get the pitch into playable condition. Although the ground was heavy, the surface held up well. With a plenty of alumni of the Oxfordshire school on the touchline and a good contingent of supporters having made the long journey from Yorkshire, there was an excellent atmosphere as the home side kicked off under sunny skies, but facing a chilly westerly wind.
Bloxham enjoyed the bulk of the early territory and possession and, when GSAL were penalised, that was kicked to the left corner. With possession won from the line-out, although the initial maul was stopped, possession was retained and successive drives to within inches of the line by the forwards were only stopped by good defence. Finally, with the referee signaling for a penalty advantage, the ball was switched to the backs on the right, but with the ball carrier being forced into touch we came back for the penalty. This was quickly taken and prop Harry Fellingham plunged over for the opening score. Flanker Sean Baker’s conversion attempt missed narrowly.
The momentum seemed to be staying with the home side following the restart, with GSAL being penalised on half way. The Bloxham line-out was effective throughout, with Baker the go-to man, and with possession secured, the ball was moved through the hands, with captain and England U18 squad member Daniel Eckersley carrying strongly. However turnover ball was clinically exploited by GSAL, who switched play to the right, creating an overlap for the long-striding wing Josh Grier. Although he was pulled down by the cover defence just short of the line, he was able to get a inside pass away to outside centre Dara Madden who crossed for the equalising score. Full back Sonny Wade’s conversion attempt was well struck but hit the post and stayed out.
The Yorkshire side looked to make use of the wind advantage, with the boot of inside centre Finlay Bruce keeping Bromsgrove in their own half, but it was again turnover ball that led to the next score. With GSAL looking to find space on the left, Bloxham outside centre James Boardman intercepted and ran clear from inside his own half to outpace the cover defence and score in the right corner. The difficult conversion was unsuccessful.
Although GSAL struggled to get across the gain line, thanks to good line speed from the Bloxham defence, they won a penalty on half way, kicked to set up a line-out on the right. With possession secured, their driving maul took play deep into the Bloxham 22 and was adjudged to have been taken down illegally, giving another attacking line-out in the right corner. Although the ensuing maul was stopped, fairly this time, possession was retained and after sustained forward pressure, flanker Max Hyde crashed over close to the posts, Wade adding the extras to put his side in front.
Bloxham worked hard from the restart, Eckersley carrying again, but the GSAL kicking game remained effective, another kick to the left corner by Bruce chased effectively and giving them possession on the Bloxham 22. The referee appeared initially to award a penalty to GSAL but to reverse that decision and Bloxham were able to clear. With both sides struggling to put together sustained phases of possession, the interval was reached with the visitors retaining their narrow advantage on the scoreboard and the ground staff on hand to carry out some pitch maintenance.
Half-time: Bloxham 10-12 GSAL
The second half saw GSAL on the back foot immediately. Losing their own ball at the line-out, they were penalised on half way, with the referee adding an extra 10 metres, giving Bloxham the chance to set up an attacking line-out in the left corner. With possession won at the set piece, another penalty was won from the maul. That was again taken quickly and a repeat of the opening try looked on the cards, but the referee brought play back and another line-out was set up, Baker again rising to secure possession. With the maul taking play close to the line, second row Harvey Jones broke away on the blind side and dived over to score in the corner. The difficult conversion was again unsuccessful.
The home side sensed the chance to secure a decisive score, forcing another penalty and winning the ensuing line-out on the left. This time the ball was moved through the hands, Boardman making ground in midfield before offloading to Eckersley and the No 8 broke through tackles, carrying to the 22, where play was taken on by the forwards to within 10 metres of the line. However, the ball went forward and GSAL were able to clear from the ensuing set scrum.
The respite was short-lived, as the Bloxham forwards continued to get across the gain line and forced successive penalties to create good field position on the left. This time the attacking line-out was taken short and, although the defence held firm, the ensuing clearance kick was a short one and pressure was maintained, with the defence being forced to concede another penalty close to their line. This time the referee showed yellow, and with Bloxham looking to exploit the man advantage by opting for a scrum, another score looked likely, but an early engagement saw GSAL awarded a free kick and pressure was briefly relieved.
With the momentum continuing to be with the home side and GSAL having difficulty securing their line-out ball, Bloxham remained camped deep in the GSAL half. With a second yellow card being shown, Bloxham again pressed for the decisive score, setting up another line-out in the left corner from the penalty. With the maul moving forward towards the line, a fourth try looked probable but the referee had spotted a “truck and trailer” infringement, awarding a scrum to GSAL.
Having limited Bloxham to a single score despite their dominance since half time, GSAL at last began to get back into the game. After Grier had run out of defence, the Yorkshire side put together some phases of possession and it was now the home side that was conceding penalties. Suddenly, despite the singing from the home supporters, there was a realisation on the touchline that a dramatic end to the game was not impossible, though time was running out and the unwelcome arrival of a heavy shower did not make handling any easier. Although Bloxham were able to keep play outside their 22, the penalty count was mounting and it was their turn to be reduced to 14 men when the referee again went to his pocket. The final play was a long and tense one, thanks to the award of penalties, but finally the ball went loose and was cleared to touch.
This is a young Bloxham side, with a smattering of U16s and only a few players in the Upper 6th form. Despite that they played the conditions well in the second half and were deserved winners. They will now look forward to a visit to Allianz Park in two weeks’ time, when they will face the winners of the Dean Close vs Bishop Wordsworth semi-final. That should be a great occasion. GSAL defended with great heart when they were under extreme pressure in the second half and credit is due to them for the way that they limited Bloxham to a single score in that period.
Full-time: Bloxham 15-12 GSAL
By Peter Crawshaw
Harry Fellingham (Vice-captain), Charlie Fellingham, Jack Wildman, Tom Oliver, Harvey Jones, Sean Baker, Charlie Daniels, Dan Eckersley (Captain), Stanley Deeley, Ralph Roberts, Oscar Hunt, Henry Stainton, James Boardman (Vice-captain), Will Lewis-Jones, Charlie Yates
Replacements: Marcus Von Sydow, Jack Lloyd, Alexander Myles, Jonny Sealey
The Grammar School at Leeds:
George Gearty, Sam Davenport, Alex Evans, Toby Fawkes, Alex Wright, Max Hyde, Philip Crystal, Cameron Briggs, Ruairidh Fowler, George Grafton (Captain), Henry Bates, Finlay Bruce, Dara Madden, Josh Grier, Sonny Wade
Replacements: Jordan Wan, George Southby, Demi Oshin, Veron Dhesi