Epsom College resisted sustained periods of pressure while themselves delivering some clinical finishing to overcome perennial local rivals St John’s School Leatherhead to take this Champions Trophy Quarter Final 27-14.
With a distance of only a few miles down the A24 between them these schools enjoy a longstanding rivalry, with a block fixture the traditional climax to both schools’ fixtures before Christmas. Although there is unsurprisingly a considerable overlap in their respective fixture lists, there was at this stage of the season no guidance in terms of results against common opposition that might have indicated the likely outcome. Both schools have had decent records in this competition with Epsom having reached the final in 2015 and the semi-final in 2016 (losing to a strong Bedford side on both occasions) and St John’s reaching the semi-final in 2017 before going out to eventual winners Dulwich. With several Harlequins and London Irish academy players taking the field a match of quality seemed assured.
Epsom kicked off up the slope with the breeze behind them and quickly won a penalty on the St John’s 22 which fly half Jack Jesty duly converted to give them an early lead. Both sides were having difficulty winning their own ball at the set piece and after Epsom had taken a scrum No 8 George Addington picked up from the base and was adjudged to have been stopped by a high tackle, enabling Jesty to extend the lead to six points from the tee.
The strength of the home side’s forward pack was then illustrated though use of the pick-and-go tactic and the Epsom defence were forced to concede a penalty. St John’s chose to kick to the corner but the wind took the ball into the in-goal area, allowing Epsom to clear from the resulting scrum. Problems at the set piece continued for both sides with St John’s struggling at the lineout but looking on top at scrum time. When Epsom were penalised again on their 22, St John’s this time opted to go for the points but the kick drifted wide.
Finally after a run by left wing Thomas Wood had given good field position another penalty was conceded by the visitors and a period of sustained pressure on their line by the St John’s forward pack ensued. A score looked likely but the defence held firm and, after the ball was turned over, centre Theo Alexis combined with full back Adam Koep to take play back to half way, where St John’s were forced to concede a penalty. With clean possession won from the ensuing lineout on the 22 the ball was moved quickly into midfield and Alexis found an excellent line to cut back against the grain and score in the left corner. Jesty landed the difficult touchline conversion to complete a 14 point swing in the space of a couple of minutes.
Although the restart was secured, Epsom were again penalised on half way and the ball kicked to the right corner. With the lineout won, St John’s set up a driving maul which Epsom were judged to have taken down illegally. With a free ball St John’s went for a cross kick to the left corner, but that was successfully defended so play came back to the right for another lineout. This time however St John’s were judged to have obstructed at the ensuing maul and with the put-in at the scrum and time running out before the interval Epsom looked set to clear their lines. However a tremendous shove by the St John’s forwards gave them possession and another period of sustained pressure on the line followed with both forwards and backs stopped inches short by determined defence, the Epsom players showing excellent bod positions. Again a score seemed inevitable when the defence were eventually penalised and St John’s opted for a 5m scrum from which the forwards continued their drives at the line. Somehow however Epsom won a turnover and the ball was kicked to ouch the end the first half. It seemed extraordinary that St John’s had reached half time scoreless given the territory and possession that they had enjoyed in the last ten minutes.
HT: St John’s 0-13 Epsom
The momentum continued to be with the visitors after the interval with the strong centre pairing of Alexis and Captain / Quins EPDG member Tom Allen combining to take play into the St John’s half where a penalty was won but on this occasion Jesty’s kick into the breeze fell just short. However Epsom soon extended their lead. Following an attacking lineout on the right a beautifully weighted grubber was put down the blindside and the bouncing ball popped up above the line where it was skilfully gathered by right wing Bertie Bamber who did extremely well to ground the ball. With Jesty producing another touchline conversion the points difference was beginning to look insurmountable, but St John’s finally narrowed the gap. With only a short kick to touch from the restart St John’s made the most of an attacking lineout in the left corner and this time the driving maul proved unstoppable with flanker Ethan Binns touching down. St John’s showed that they could kick touchline conversions too as replacement fly half Ben Bound was successful from wide out.
The score brought a switch in momentum and a second try for the home side soon followed. After good retention Captain / Quins EPDG member Jack Potter combined with full back Jonny Lack before the ball was offloaded to Bound, who sped through the defence to score under the posts and add the conversion. With only a one score lead Epsom were required to pick up their game and good work by Allen and Koep took play into the right corner where Epsom won a 5m scrum. With possession won, the ball was moved through the hands to the left but the defence were able to prevent an overlap. Pressure on the St John’s line was maintained with both backs and forwards coming close but denied by tenacious defence.
The intensity of the game was now taking its toll and as players on both sides tired the game was opening up with Epsom enjoying the bulk of possession and territory. Finally a penalty for a high tackle on Koep gave Epsom an opportunity and prop / London Irish academy player Lennan Day – a strong ball carrier throughout – made some hard yards before offloading to Jesty. Although he was stopped the ball came back to Day who drove to the line where hooker Riley Milsom managed to get the ball down and Jesty added the simple conversion. With only minutes left Epsom managed to keep possession and when the ball was knocked on the referee blew for the end of the match.
This game really took off just before half time and both sides had good scoring opportunities from that point, but in the final analysis St John’s had given Epsom to big a lead to get back on terms. Epsom will hope for a home draw in the semi-finals while St John’s will look for revenge in the block fixture next month.
Full Time: St John’s, Leatherhead 14-27 Epsom College
St John’s School, Leatherhead
Josh Williams, William Merry, Luke Trimming, Ed Timpson, Daniel Craig, Ethan Binns, Raef Murphy, Noah Paterson-Moody, Chris Ballard, Harry Mead, Thomas Wood, Jack Potter, Owen Thomas, Arthur Lewis, Jonny Lack
Replacements: Charlie Hellier, Sam Turner, Josh Hay, Sam Smedley, James Garner, Ben Bound, Owen Rowlands
Nilesh Raghavan, Riley Milsom, Lennan Day (Vice-Capt), Luke Nesbit, Freddie Noble, Andrew Palmer, Makeen Alikhan, George Addington, Tom Williams, Jack Jesty, Luke Laughton, Theo Alexis, Tom Allen , Capt), Bertie Bamber, Adam Koep
Replacements: William Page, Gordon Chung, Maximillian Smeby, Charlie Hodgson, Oliver Bliss, James Webster, Thomas Lynagh