Whitgift’s back to back U18 Schools Cup dream continues after a brilliant Ben Fitzgerald penalty at the death sealed a stunning semi final comeback against Sherborne.
From 20-7 down early on in the second half the reigning champions clawed their way back to 23-21 before being awarded a penalty with just two minutes remaining. Up stepped full back Ben Fitzgerald who, despite a slip, thumped over the penalty from the ten metre line to seal the most dramatic and spirited of comebacks, 24-23, and a place in the U18 Schools Cup final at Twickenham Stadium on Thursday 19th March.
It completed a superb personal turnaround for Fitzgerald, whose earned an early yellow card for a slapdown that cost Sherborne a certain try and from there they built a lead. The talented full back did not let it affect him though, showing some incisive moments as the game progressed before turning into the hero at the death with that nerveless kick.
It was a heart-wrenching finish for Sherborne, they got off to an absolute flyer, two early tries helping them to a 13-0 lead. In attack they were crisp and precise, while in defence they were relentless, time and time against forcing Whitgift back or into errors, while in outside centre Sam Reynolds they had an absolute man on a mission in defence.
Reynolds was on form in attack too and it was his break early on that led to the Fitzgerald yellow, from which outside half George Case landed three points for an early Sherborne lead.
Pretty much from the restart Sherborne were back again, Charlie McCaig crashing over from short range as he collected a loose ball after another early Sherborne long range break, putting his side 8-0 ahead.
Whitgift coughed up another penalty a quarter of an hour in and Sherborne skipper Tom Carr-Smith, another who had a wonderful game, instructed his side to go to the corner. The ball was delivered safely and after driving towards the line and setting up a couple of rucks bulldozer number 8 Lorcan McLoughlin bashed over for a stunning 13-0 lead.
It was the stuff of dreams for the home side, budget cuts have seen the semi finals moved to host schools and live streams done independently, who had a strong crowd absolutely bouncing and the reigning champions on the ropes.
At the time it looked like Sherborne might start to really run away with it, but on reflection perhaps Whitgift were showing real maturity is slowing the game down and eking out a few penalties. For sure enough, those penalties came and they were giving the visitors just that little bit of time and field position that they needed.
Still though, even without the ball Sherborne were a handful for Whitgift, but another penalty allowed the 2010 and 2011 back to back champions to pump the ball into the corner. From there they set up a powerful maul, a weapon that had been their most effective through the first half, and their outstanding number 8 Gabriel Seriki took the ball across the line to reduce the deficit.
It was a vital moment, it brought Whitgift back into the game and stemmed the Sherborne momentum. The home side might still have had the better of the next 20 minutes or so, but it brought Whitgift back into the game and, as it turned out, that sniff was going to be all they would need.
Fitzgerald slotted the conversion, a tough old kick from the corner. Perhaps at that point we should all have known. At that stage though all on the touchlines were none the wiser, what it did do though was to reduce the deficit to 13-7 at the break.
The maul might have been Whitgift’s strongest hand in the first half but early in the second half Sherborne showed that they too could maul with the best of them as they pumped the ball into the corner and then set up the maul, with replacement hooker Freddie Woolgar blasting through a gap to extend the lead out to 20-7 with Case’s conversion.
20-7. Just take that in, against the champions Sherborne were 20-7 up and playing magnificently. With a passionate home crowd behind them you would have backed them to do it, even Whitgift supporters might have backed them to do it. Whitgift were coming into the game but time and time again Sherborne were stepping up in defence. It was endlessly impressive.
There were fifteen men in navy blue that thought differently, though. Whitgift could have panicked, they could have thrown in the towel. Instead they stepped up and in a display of utter grit and determination, they inched and clawed their way back.
The good thing from their perspective was that they had time on the clock, so when George Prest raced over after a lovely tip on from England hooker Joe Vajner there was still another twenty minutes left on the clock and with Fitzgerald converting, the gap was just seven points.
Seven minutes later though Prest received a yellow and Case knocked over a penalty to stretch it out to 23-14. At the time we tweeted that they felt like vital points. For a long while that felt true, how little we knew.
Despite being down to 14 though, Whitgift kept coming back and eventually found themselves camped on the Sherborne line. Time and time again they charged at the try line but time and time again Sherborne repelled. The passion and determination from both sets of players was palpable. Eventually though that sort of assault on the try line will yield results if errors are avoided and so it proved here as eventually tighthead Perio Noah crashed over. Fitzgerald converted, and with that the sin bin was done, Whitgift we back to fifteen men and were just two points behind with seven minutes left.
Then came the moment, or at least what felt like the moment, as almost straight from the restart Whitgift broke free and Ade Coker raced away down the left hand side to score. Sherborne looked stunned, everyone felt stunned, but just as that emotion gripped hold suddenly it became apparent that the referee had called play back for a forward pass.
Sherborne had been given a reprieve, and it felt like Whitgift had missed their chance. Time was ticking and that had been a golden opportunity. Sherborne now had the bit between their teeth and were prepared to eke out the clock and book their place at Twickenham.
It might very well have worked, too, but for some utterly outstanding work on the floor from Whitgift’s England U18 centre, Oliver Hartley. As Sherborne went for another phase the rangy 13 saw a chance and bounced like a prime Brian O’Driscoll.
It was a key intervention but by no means a ‘gimmie’ shot at goal, on the ten metre line, on the angle, it was not easy. No such thoughts for Fitzgerald though as he stepped up to take the kick, and boy did he step up. Hearts were in mouths from supports of all sides as he made his way towards the ball. This dramatic game of rugby was going to all boil down to one kick. As he struck it he slipped, Whitgift heats jumped further into mouths, but as he fell backwards out came a yelp of joy from the young full back. The rest of us did not know yet, but like all kickers he knew from the moment the ball left his boot that it was sailing over.
Sail over it did and with it he had taken his side from 20-7 down to a 24-23 victory. A comeback of stunning proportions, epic determination, incredible patience, but most of sheer guts. Bucket loads of guts. The reigning champions had found a way back to Twickenham, found a way to win, and given themselves the chance to repeat the feat of their sides of 2010 and 2011 by going back to back.
You had to feel for Sherborne, how could you not, they had given absolutely everything. If the measure of sporting performance is to have given everything you can then they had neared perfection. Brilliant in attack at times, ferocious in defence, they had put in a semi final performance to be proud of.
Whitgift had simply found a way to overcome that performance, throughout their comeback the patience and spirit that they showed was unshakeable and in key moments they had found their undoubted quality, never more so than at the close when first Hartley and then Fitzgerald stepped up to seal the win.
Ultimately it was a semi final that will go down as one of the greats.
Full Time: Sherborne 23-24 Whitgift
15 Ollie Noble, 14 Felix Connelly, 13 Sam Reynolds, 12 Charlie McCaig, 11 Toby Whigham, 10 George Case, 9 Tom Carr-Smith (c), 1 Nathanael Fagerson, 2 Tom Williams, 3 Zach Thomas, 4 Archie Walwyn, 5 Henry Blake, 6 Theo Irvine, 7 Hal Little, 8 Lorcan McLoughlin.
Replacements: 16 Freddie Woolgar, 17 Jez Meaker, 18 Oliver Westmacott, 19 Raif O’Brien, 20 Henry Marriage.
15 Ben Fitzgerald, 14 Ioan Parry, 13 Oliver Hartley, 12 Niall McGann, 11 Ade Coker, 10 Charlie Beckett, 9 Tom Berger (c), 1 Bertie Heaver, 2 Joseph Vajner, 3 Piero Noah, 4 Conor Manzi, 5 Joe Hubner, 6 Reis Norman, 7 Samuel Crangle, 8 Gabriel Seriki.
Replacements: 16 Max Orr, 17 George Prest, 18 Omari Malcolm, 19 Felix Gilbert.
Watch the game again here: