One of the abiding memories of this decade of Schools Rugby will surely be Dulwich College’s record in knockout rugby. Three Schools Cup titles, a Schools Cup final, a St Joseph’s Festival title, and, most recently, a Champions Trophy title in 2017.
Their quest for a second Champions Trophy title before the decade is out started well on Wednesday afternoon as they defeated a good St John’s Leatherhead side 24-13 in blustery conditions.
Victories in the Champions Trophy do not come easy, the raised profile and the carrot of that appearance at Allianz Park and a bit of silverware at the end gives each and every player that extra buzz around these games.
That showed at Dulwich College as both sides came out of the traps playing with real pace and ambition. Within eight minutes St John’s had flown over in the left hand corner for a 5-0 lead and already the old heads on the touchline were harking back to the semi final in 2017 when these two met.
Dulwich won that day but they were given an almighty test by St John’s and it had that feel again already. Nevertheless, Dulwich stayed calm amidst the early phases and went through their phases with real fluency and accuracy. This is a side that wants to play and when they get it right they are a joy to watch.
It was somehow fitting though with Sam Howard in the crowd, architect of the first four of those Dulwich College triumphs this decade, that when Dulwich leveled the scores 23 minutes into the game it came through a bruising maul. Those early sides of the decade, with Simon Thomas as forwards coach, saw Dulwich have one of the most feared mauls in the country. James Hanks, as a former Exeter Chief second row, certainly knows a thing or two about them too.
His sides have been famed for their relentless ambition with ball in hand though and as the half wore on that was starting to stretch St John’s. Seeing that, the home side poked a ball in behind, forcing the away side to carry over. From the resultant scrum it was a glorious set move that sent them soaring over unopposed to extend the lead to 12-5.
St John’s hit back with a penalty on the stroke of half time, and for the first half of the second half the scores would be set at 12-8. Both sides playing some good rugby but showing real accuracy in defence to deny space and time to their opposition. The odd ball went down from both but it was as a result of the pressure coming through from both sides.
It was energy sapping though, and when Dulwich gained possession in the St John’s 22 that energy loss was always likely to hit the defending side. Dulwich knew what to do and battered away from short range before crashing over to extend out to a 19-8 lead thanks to a superb conversion.
Ten minutes later 19-8 became 24-8 with a barnstorming run down the left hand touchline, and with that the game felt as though it was done and dusted. A 16 point lead with 7 minutes to go, surely not?
This is the Champions Trophy though. Never count your chickens. St John’s were certainly in no mood for giving up and built phase after phase after phase, building the pressure and slowly securing the field position. With three minutes on the clock they were over the line and quickly charging back to halfway. 24-13, they couldn’t, could they?
They knocked and they knocked but ultimately this slick Dulwich College side had built up too much of an advantage in that middle period of the second half.
The reality was that this was a close game, but Dulwich executed in the middle periods of each half to earn that four tries to two outcome to leave it relatively comfortable in the end despite the late surge from the visitors. Having a degree of comfort in games that are on the surface pretty close is a key quality to have when putting together these title challenges.
There is long way to go yet, but with the school celebrating their 400th anniversary this year with a number of special occasion, including a live streamed game against Bedford on Saturday, a second Champions Trophy title to close out the decade and celebrate the 400th anniversary would be a spectacular achievement.
There will be plenty of other that will want to have their say before that though, not least the champions Wellington College and two time finalists Epsom College, among others. Both are in the quarter final pot now alongside Dulwich, as well as Oakham, Hampton, Blundell’s, and one of the big favourites, Rugby School, with either Hurstpierpoint College or Uppingham to join them on Thursday ahead of Friday’s quarter final draw at midday.
Full Time: Dulwich College 24-13 St John’s Leatherhead
Champions Trophy Round 2 Results:
Rugby 45-0 RGS Guildford
St Paul’s 6-15 Blundell’s
Oakham 25-19 Clifton College
Berkhamsted 0-38 Hampton
Hurstpierpoint College v Uppingham (Thursday 10th)
Kingswood 26-56 Wellington College
Epsom College 31-12 Bristol Grammar
Dulwich College 24-13 St John’s, Leatherhead
Champions Trophy Round 1:
Bedford 7-66 Rugby
Clifton College 24-18 Monmouth
Hampton 24-15 Tonbridge
RGS Guildford 17-3 Bryanston
St Paul’s v BYE
Oakham v BYE
Berkhamsted v BYE
Hurstpierpoint College v BYE
Bristol GS v BYE
Kingswood v BYE
Blundell’s v BYE
St John’s, Leatherhead v BYE
Epsom College v BYE
Dulwich College v BYE
Uppingham v BYE
Wellington College v BYE