We say it time and time again, the Champions Trophy somehow each round always manages to produce fixtures that are utterly drama filled.
That was the case once again on Thursday afternoon as Uppingham delivered arguably the most significant result of the last decade for them at Hurstpierpoint College as a last minute penalty secured a 20-19 victory to send them through to Friday’s quarter final draw.
Broadcast on a live stream around the country, and beyond, both sides put on a show. The rugby was intense at times, gloriously free-flowing at times, and in the end delivered a result in dramatic fashion.
Cudos to Uppingham hooker Sam Westmacott. The Leicester Tigers man is a recent convert to the position, and in a display of his sheer all-round skillset, he was also handed the kicking duties. Into a howling breeze right into his side’s faces, he stepped up with three minutes left to play to give Uppingham the one point, 20-19, lead that would give them the game in all likelihood. In normal circumstances it was a kick that would not leave you batting an eyelid, but these were not normal circumstances. About 25 yards out, probably seventeen or eighteen from the touchline, it looked simple but with the breeze it had every chance of dying and falling short, and with a quarter final place on the line, nerves had to play their part.
No matter to Westmacott though, he banged it over seemingly without any fear at all, a kick that typified his performance on the day that was all energy and fearlessness, including a memorable offload and a delicate grubber that caused chaos.
It was Hurstpierpoint that had the early running in the game, quickly finding that the forward power around the fringes of the ruck could be a real source of joy in the game. A searing break down the left saw them set up position to hammer away at the Uppingham line. The away side held out for a while, but eventually the dam had to crack and it was Henry Duffield that did it. Deservedly so too, he was to go on and have a fantastic game.
Uppingham responded though, but it took some doing. Hurstpierpoint’s aggressive line speed was causing them some issues, but they kept calm heads, understanding that if they could get around the linespeed they had the handling and imagination to cause havoc.
That was exactly what they did for their opening score, Westmacott and the outstanding Harrison Casey at scrum half with some smart hands before William Owens broke the line with a superb carry. What an effort from him it was all day too, coming in for an injured academy tighthead and performing superbly. His carry gave his side quick ball and sharp hands from, captain on the day, James Chalk released Pip Jackson for a lovely try.
Chalk and his opposite number Frazer Falzon were both stepping in as captains for this one, with both sides missing their influential skippers through injury. Neither side appeared to be suffering too much for it though, and were each playing with superb ambition. That ambition was to cost Hurstpierpoint for Uppingham’s second though, as they looked to run from their own 22, Uppingham wing Henry Hunt spotted that he had a defensive overload and stepped in for the intercept, knowing that he had plenty of numbers to tidy up inside him on the drift if he missed it. It was a smart bit of play, and gave his side the lead at 12-7 with Westmacott’s conversion.
Perhaps being caught out there changed Hurstpierpoint’s style a little, or perhaps they realised that their most potent weapon against Uppingham here was going to be their physicality in the tight, either way, it was in the tight where they began to focus even more and were finding joy.
Their speed in defence was relentless, and their work at the breakdown outstanding, Harlequins openside Chris Preen, as an U16 member of the side that reached the semi finals of this competition last year, proving a real force there. Again it was through that work in the tight with ball in hand that they were able to level the game up too, once more working through the phases on the Uppingham line before eventually finding their way over, this time through the skipper, Falzon.
It left the sides at 12-12 heading into a much needed break, the first 32 minutes of the game had progressed without a single stoppage significant to warrant the clock being stopped, even when it came it was only brief.
Just three minutes into the second half Uppingham gave us the moment of the match, arguably the round, when Hurstpierpoint sent a ball high into the away 22. Ethan Hodgson gathered it and set off, as had been the want of Uppingham every time they had the ball. Skipping his way to the 22 he released full back Archie Hogan, a bundle of energy throughout, who quickly offloaded to Ethan Heath-Drury. His grubber bobbled about but found its way back to Hogan who showed stunning pace to race away from halfway. Just a handful of yards short he was hauled down by Frederick Longley. However sharp support work from Hodgson, Heath-Drury, and Casey secured the ball and, like all good opensides, Christian Totty was on hand to barge his way over for a quite glorious score.
It truly was sensational, but again the home side did not panic and stuck to where they were finding success, around the fringes. Finding field position later on in the half they found themselves a few metres short of the line and again went to the short game, pounding away until the results came. It was such smart play, yielding their third score of the game and giving them a 19-17 lead thanks to Longley’s conversion.
With less than ten minutes left, it felt like that could be the game. The tactic surely had to be to use the wind to pin Uppingham back, but such had been the pace and ambition of Uppingham’s play from deep, leaving them to run from their own half into broken field felt risky despite the distance. A real catch-22 for the home side.
In the end though it was not that ambitious play that would seal the game, it was that nerveless kick from Westmacott with just three minutes to play. From the resultant restart Uppingham showed a side of the game that had been the preserve of the hosts to that point, utterly controlling the breakdown and playing through the phases in tight to run the clock down. With the referee keeping them updated with the remaining time, it was fitting to see Harrison Casey boot the ball away at the end. The scrum half had been the absolute heartbeat of the team throughout, buzzing and alert at all times, never letting anyone have a moments peace.
It was a heartbreaker for Hurstpierpoint, there was little more they could have given. In they end the difference probably was that sharpness from Uppingham when they sniffed an opportunity to have a run, in the wide channels they looked to offload a flooded numbers through, never more gloriously than for the move that saw Totty cross the line.
They now into the quarter final pot, to be drawn at midday tomorrow (Friday), alongside champions Wellington College and last year’s finalists Epsom College, as well as Hampton, Rugby, Blundell’s, Dulwich College, and their great local rivals, Oakham.
The Champions Trophy, it’s never easy, it’s always dramatic, but it showcases the very best of schools rugby and certainly did so on Thursday afternoon.
Full Time: Hurstpierpoint College 19-20 Uppingham
15 Frederick Longley, 14 Chris Anson, 13 Rory Adams (vc), 12 Alex Slater, 11 Matthieu Bridger, 10 Lorcan O’Byrne-Nestor, 9 Sam Hall (vc), 1 Cameron Sturgeon, 2 Jamie Phillips, 3 Archie Khouri (vc), 4 Daniel Crook, 5 Henry Duffield, 6 Rafe Liebers, 7 Chris Preen, 8 Frazer Falzon (c).
Replacements: Jack Douglas-Smith, Andrew Fadera, Thomas Wharton.
15 Archie Hogan, 14 Henry Hunt, 13 Ethan Heath-Drury, 12 Pip Jackson, 11 Ethan Hodgson, 10 Charlie Richardson, 9 Harrison Casey, 1 Carlson White, 2 Sam Westmacott, 3 William Owens, 4 Angus Duff, 5 Henry Robinson, 6 Angus Jackson, 7 Christian Totty, 8 James Chalk (c).
Replacements: George Perkins, Barney Plant, William Meadows.