Sutton Valence School, having trailed 3-7 at half time, produced a strong second half performance against Wellington School to take the second U18 Schools Vase semi-final by a score of 22-14.
Sutton Valence School have had a near flawless record in the past three years: unbeaten this season (with a draw against Whitgift U18B), their only losses in that period have been to Hayes School (twice in the National Vase) and Whitgift’s 1st XV. Their Somerset based opponents have also had an excellent season, with thirteen wins and only three defeats (two by a single point) coming into this game. A close contest seemed in prospect.
There has been some disappointment that it has not been possible to play this season’s semi-finals of the National Schools Cup and Vase competitions at a neutral venue. The upside of that arrangement is the potential for a really pulsating atmosphere at a school venue, and both touchlines were packed with vociferous spectators, with the predictably large home contingent matched by an excellent group of Wellington supporters making the long journey to Kent from the West Country. The ground staff had done a good job to ensure that the pitch was playable after yet more rain overnight, and weather conditions were largely fine, despite a strong westerly wind, with only one short rain shower midway through the second half.
The home side enjoyed the wind advantage as the game began but it was the Somerset school that got on the board first, having won a penalty in front of the posts. Full back Ru Schofield’s kick from the tee was held up by the strong wind, but was well followed up and the defence were forced to concede a 5m scrum. From the set piece, the ball was moved to the tall inside centre Josh Rowe who found a good line to cut through and score close to the posts, Schofield adding the extras.
Although Sutton Valence soon narrowed the gap to four points with a penalty from full back Luke Trigg, the visitors continued to have the advantage in terms of both territory and possession. The powerful Wellington forwards repeatedly got over the gain line, prop Theo Norton carrying strongly. Although Sutton Valence looked to make use of the wind with a kick from fly half Arthur Genders, that was run back to half way where Wellington were awarded a penalty, kicked to touch on the right to set up an attacking line-out on the 22.
With possession on from the set piece, the ball was moved left and progress made towards the line, but a knock-on gave the home side a scrum. Although possession was won and a clearance kick made, that was run back effectively by Wellington. Schofield showed excellent pace to step his way past attempted tackles on the left but was pulled down just short of the line. Possession was recycled and the forwards got across the line, but the defence managed to get bodies underneath, giving Wellington a 5m scrum. Once again, Wellington looked to put the long striding Rowe into space from first phase possession but he was well tackled and although play was taken on by Norton, excellent defence saw the home side awarded a scrum.
Wellington looked to apply pressure but No 8 Will Hunt picked up from the base of the scrum and fed scrum half Presley Farrance who got his clearance kick away safely, but that was well fielded by Schofield who again stepped through the defence but was tackled deep in the left corner. Once again the Wellington forward pack drove over but the Sutton Valence defence put their bodies on the line, preventing the ball from being grounded and the referee blew for half time.
Half-time: Sutton Valence School 3-7 Wellington School
With Wellington having had the better of the first half and enjoying the wind advantage after the interval, the home side had plenty to do. Whether it was the psychological boost of having defended well in the face of great pressure or the half-time team talk, they quickly turned things round. After winning a penalty on half way, and securing possession from the ensuing line-out on the right, Genders broke down the right and found inside centre Brandon Jackson in space close to the touchline. He found a great line to break through tackles and cross the whitewash, running round close to the posts to score and thus facilitating Trigg’s successful conversion attempt.
The shift in momentum continued as the home supporters started to turn up the volume, with Jackson again running strongly and Sutton Valence winning successive scrums, enabling them to take play into the right corner. When possession was switched into midfield, replacement Dylan Harley made hard yards close to the posts and another scrum was awarded to Sutton Valence. With possession won, the forward pack drove to the line but excellent defence held them up, giving the home side another scrum in the shadow of the posts. This time the referee penalised the Wellington front row and Farrance took a quick tap before diving over to score under the posts, Trigg adding the extras.
Wellington’s woes continued when they were caught in front of the kicker at the restart. With possession secured from the scrum, Farrance put in a well weighted grubber kick, finding touch on the right. This time the Sutton Valence lineout jumpers stole possession and Hunt carried into midfield, before the ball was moved through the hands to the left. A try looked likely, but the referee had spotted an infringement and Wellington were awarded a scrum close to their line. Possession was won, but the attempted clearance kick from the in-goal area was charged down by Farrance who regathered and scored. Although the touchline conversion was unsuccessful, the home side were now three scores clear.
The Somerset based school at last began to get the field position that they would have wished for given the wind advantage, regaining possession from the restart and driving through their forwards, but were met by spirited defence. A clear scoring opportunity was created when a penalty was won on the 22 and kicked to the right corner. Although the line-out ball was won and the driving maul set up, the Sutton Valence defence was equal to the task and forced a scrum, enabling Charlie Galligan, now switched to first receiver to get away a clearance kick.
The respite was short-lived as Wellington ran back the kick to the 22, where Sutton Valence were penalised and further punished when the referee showed yellow. This time a tap was taken and powerfully built tight head prop Joe Holleyoak used to make some hard yards, but a handling error gave a scrum to Sutton Valence. Although Harley again carried well, the wind was strengthening and the ensuing clearance kick was blown back close to the line.
Wellington pressure continued with the defence forced to concede another penalty on the 22. Although touch was not found with the kick to the right corner, a knock-on gave Wellington an attacking scrum, from which Rowe carried strongly before offloading to flanker Tom Simms who forced his way over the line but was held up by excellent defence. The ensuing 5m scrum was dramatic: won against the head by Sutton Valence, but the ball was not gathered cleanly and Simms picked up and dived over to score. With time running out, Schofield took a quick drop kick to add the extras, and although Sutton Valence were penalised from the restart, Wellington were unable to make use of the tapped penalty and the referee blew for full time.
This was a thrilling semi-final. Had Wellington been able to turn their pressure in the red zone into points before half time, they might not have been overhauled, and the work by the Sutton Valence defence in that period (and again in the final quarter) was crucial. It is always particularly tough to lose at this stage in any competition, but this is a young Wellington side and they will doubtless bounce back. This Sutton Valence side clearly has built an impressive team spirit and their match up with Newcastle School for Boys (also unbeaten this season) in the final should be an thrilling one.
Full-time: Sutton Valence School 22-14 Wellington School
By Peter Crawshaw
Alfie Goater, Charlie Galligan , Joseph McInerney, Ryan Washington, Yannick De Moubray, James Mardon, Nathan Bispham, Will Hunt, Presley Farrance (Vice-Capt), Arthur Genders, Ben Watkins (Capt), Brandon Jackson, Jack Lewis, Max Savage, Luke Trigg
Replacements: Awisha Gurung, Dylan Harley, Arthur Moffatt , Tom Cunningham
Theo Norton, Tom Brooks, Joe Holleyoak, Alex Smith, Will Jeanes, Fardin Tajwar, Tom Simms, Oli Beckley, Ben Bolwell, Ben French, Alex Hendy, Ollie Kitson, Josh Rowe, Toby Tisshaw, Ru Schofield
Replacements: Harry Sheppard, Will Davis, Myles Langley, Alfie Chapman